Bronx Middle School is Model for Best Practices to Help At-Risk Students

Geoff Decker for Gotham Schools |

Principal Dolores Peterson listens as a student reads the speech she will deliver at an honors event later that evening. Photo by Geoffrey Decker

Two years ago, Omarina Cabrera’s academics were a distant concern. Her family had been evicted and Cabrera was uncertain where she’d be sleeping each night. And as her brothers descended deeper into the gangs they recently joined, Cabrera was not even sure if she felt safe moving back in with her family.

Months into her sixth-grade year, Cabrera was showing up late to school and teachers were noticing that her attitude seemed to be worsening.

But admission letters pinned to a bulletin board located in the main office of the New School for Leadership and Journalism, where Cabrera is now an eighth-grader, shows that she now has a bright future. Years after teachers intervened to help Cabrera, she received offers to attend top public and private schools in the city, including Brooklyn Technical High School, and boarding schools throughout New England.

Most students at the Kingsbridge school, also known as M.S. 244, don’t wind up at posh boarding schools. Ninety percent of the students come from families so poor that they qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 70 percent come from homes that speak a language other than English. Many struggle to pass state math and reading tests.

But the school’s ability to catch students such as Cabrera before they are lost has caught the Department of Education’s attention. As part of a high-profile initiative to solve entrenched troubles of the city’s middle schools, officials there are directing a group of schools to replicate M.S. 244’s successful implementation of an early warning system to identify and intervene with at-risk students.

You have to deal with adolescent social issues and emotional issues, not just the academic issues.

The approach is in some ways at odds with the city’s at-times single-minded focus on academic achievement — which is exactly why it works, according to Principal Delores Peterson.

“The reason we’re successful is that we’ve made it our mission to address the need of the whole child,” said principal Dolores Peterson. “You have to deal with adolescent social issues and emotional issues, not just the academic issues.”

Calvin Hastings, until last year M.S. 244’s network leader, is heading the department’s Middle School Quality Initiative. The $3.7 million program, part of the broader middle school reforms, seeks to reform — rather than close — 18 schools once identified as among the worst in the city. The city culled the schools from a list of 51 that were part of a 2008 City Council initiative — never fully supported by the city — that Chancellor Dennis Walcott has vowed to reinvigorate as part of his much-publicized middle school reforms.

Walcott didn’t mention Peterson’s school in a speech about the middle school reforms last month. But so far, it is the only “anchor school” selected to share best practices with the rest of the group.

At M.S. 244, a committee of deans, counselors, and teachers meets each week to pore over data linked to student progress, not all of which can be found on a bubble sheet. Using a Google Doc spreadsheet that is based on a color-coded “stoplight” system, the school looks at trends in attendance, behavior, and grades in English and math.

Read more at Gotham Schools…

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