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Diplomas Now Helps a Family in Turmoil, a Girl Falling Behind and a School Once in Disarray

Jocelyne-Blas-Cardona1When Jocelyne Blas Cardona was a sixth-grader, high school seemed out of reach. She had Ds in math and English, acted out in class and often fought with other students. Her home life was in turmoil. Her teenage brother recently fathered a child, and her own dad was often absent. She was well on her way to suspension and failure when Diplomas Now helped her get back on track at Clinton Middle School in Los Angeles.

Today, as an eighth-grader, Jocelyne, 13, has As and Bs in all of her classes, participates in a leadership class and is confident that she will succeed in high school next year.

“Diplomas Now helped me improve my grades, taught me how to be confident and prepared for high school,” she says. “It inspired me to do better.”

Jocelyne’s turnaround mirrors that of Clinton, where Diplomas Now has been operating since 2011. Diplomas Now, a partnership of Talent Development Secondary at John Hopkins, City Year and Communities In Schools, focuses on attendance, behavior and course performance at the nation’s toughest middle and high schools to keep students on track to graduate from high school.

In 2011 Clinton was struggling to meet state and district accountabilities. Half of the teachers didn’t return when the school was reconstituted under new leadership; many weren’t asked back due to poor performance. Fights were common. Students spat on each other in the stairwell. They didn’t care or listen when reprimanded. Many kids skipped class. Math proficiency was only 7 percent, and few English language learners were reclassified as proficient. “It was not a functioning school,” says Andrea Schwartz, the Diplomas Now school transformation facilitator. “It was an unhealthy situation.”

After just one year with Diplomas Now, Clinton’s transformation was “magical,” Schwartz recalls. The then-principal made it clear: “We are here to support students.” Kids stopped roaming the hallways and went to class. They began to care about their grades, and academic success was seen as cool. Today, nearly five years later, Clinton is “a pretty awesome school,” says Schwartz.  Last year, 87 percent of eighth-graders passed end-of-course algebra exams, and the number of English language learners reclassified as proficient in English has increased from 17 percent to 27 percent. Suspensions have dropped, and at least a third of the student body makes the honor roll, called Eagle’s List, with Jocelyne among them.

“The tutors with Communities In Schools told me it was going to be okay and helped me do what I had to do to get better grades,” says Jocelyne who took advantage of afterschool and lunchtime tutoring and special report card conferences aimed at helping students improve. CIS also connected Jocelyn’s parents with support during troubled times. Her father said the team was “there for him and his family in the toughest of moments” and that he is forever grateful, says CIS program manager Daniella Shina.

Tutoring and family support are only part of what Diplomas Now brought to Clinton. Sixth-grade math teacher Brach Cabral says, “City Year serves as the big brothers and sisters, and Communities In Schools is like a pep club for the whole school.”

School spirit is fostered through Clinton Climbers, a monthly initiative to recognize students who improve in attendance, behavior or course performance. Students also can earn scholar dollars that they can use at the Scholar Dollar store to buy pencils, notebooks and “free dress” days, which is one of Jocelyne’s favorite purchases.  City Year and Communities In Schools also organize friendly student-teacher competitions, such as Are You Smarter than a Middle School Student?, to help kids interact with teachers positively outside of the classroom.

Cabral says Diplomas Now also helps teachers develop professionally. She says Schwartz of Talent Development Secondary, consistently shares instructional strategies with teachers so they can use them in their classrooms.

“Diplomas Now holds all the elements together,” says Cabral, who started working at Clinton in 2012. “It bonds the sixth, seventh and eighth-graders, the teachers and makes it all happen.”

Early-warning indicator meetings with teachers and the Diplomas Now team help teachers get a fuller picture of students’ challenges. “It’s a team behind a student struggling,” Cabral said. “That trickles down so the student feels like: ‘Oh, someone does care.’ Every kid knows they have a team looking after them.”

Says Clinton Principal Brenda Pensamiento: “Differentiated instruction is not the only thing our students need. We must also provide differentiated support. While some students have adults in their homes that they can trust, that is not necessarily the case for many of my students. City Year corps members play a vital role for my students who need specific mentoring. Without our corps members we simply wouldn’t be able to reach many of our students. It takes a village to educate, nurture and support a child!”

As Clinton moves forward with Diplomas Now, Pensamiento is committed to continuing to improve students’ education. Clinton recently partnered with Spark to offer a leadership class and internships with companies such as Pandora and Sony Pictures to prepare seventh and eighth-graders for the professional world. Jocelyne says the leadership class “taught me how to be confident and how to be prepared.”

After three years, Jocelyne says Diplomas Now has given her the support to do well in high school, and she counsels sixth-graders just entering middle school. “I tell them to do the work,” she says, “and to catch up with the work and get credit just like I did when Diplomas Now pushed me and inspired me to do better.”

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