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Diplomas Now Helps Frankford High Freshman Find Motivation to Succeed in School


When school leaders at Frankford High first met ninth-grader Nasiyah Stepp, she was struggling to make it to school on time—if at all—each day, and having trouble finding the motivation to do well in her classes. Nasiyah’s mom, a single mother, does her best to care for Nasiyah and her two siblings, but long, inconvenient hours as a Wal-Mart manager keep her away from home much of the day. That’s put a number of responsibilities on Nasiyah, who is still adjusting to the new challenges of high school.

Nasiyah is in charge of keeping the house clean and in order, and making sure that her 11-year-old sister gets enough to eat. Until recently, Nasiyah also had to ensure that her sister made it to her elementary school—where the opening bell rings later than Frankford’s. “Doing all of that makes me feel tired and rushed,” the 16-year-old said. On top of those challenges, Nasiyah faces an additional obstacle to getting to school: In the School District of Philadelphia, to qualify for a student transportation pass, which allows students to use public transit for free, a student must live at least 1.5 miles from their school. Nasiyah lives about 1.44 miles from Frankford—so she’s been denied a pass.

Principal Michael Calderone and his team at Frankford, where the graduation rate hovers around 60 percent, recently chose to partner with Diplomas Now largely because they wanted to identify students who, with a little bit of extra support in the key transition year of ninth grade, might have a greater shot at graduating college- and career-ready. Nasiyah is one of those students, and already she can feel a difference—and her Diplomas Now mentors agree.

Todd Milhollen is the site coordinator for Communities In Schools, one of the three Diplomas Now partner organizations at Frankford. He is the “go-to” person for students confronting major challenges outside of school that prevent them from showing up or performing well in class. He puts a lot of effort into being a “social-emotional bridge” between school and kids’ homes, working closely with the school counselor, Ms. Morris, and two Temple University interns to connect students with resources they need.

“Mr. Jackie helps me do the work, and motivates me.”
—Nasiyah Stepp

Milhollen stresses that building one-on-one relationships with students has been key to understanding how to best motivate them. With Nasiyah, for instance, he learned that she is an artist and loves to draw, so he promised to get her an art set if she pulls up her grades—a goal she set for herself. By letting her take the driver’s seat and set her own goals, Milhollen says, Nasiyah has been more motivated to come to school and complete her assignments.

Each day, Nasiyah also spends time with Jackie Cho, known to students as “Mr. Jackie.” Cho is a corps member for City Year, the Diplomas Now partner organization that puts AmeriCorps members in schools to provide tutoring and mentorship. “Mr. Jackie helps me do the work, and motivates me,” Nasiyah said, especially in English and algebra. She also looks forward to spending time with Mr. Jackie and other City Year corps members on “Meeting Mondays,” when she and other students are invited during lunch period to get help on classwork or just hang out.

The third Diplomas Now partner is Talent Development Secondary (TDS), a Johns Hopkins program that provides improvement strategies for schools and support for teachers. TDS School Transformation Facilitator Jacqueline Thomas describes her primary role as the liaison between the school and the researchers, who are able to determine if the support provided to students is helping them reach their goals.

“By making sure that one person is the owner of the action step, we move one step closer to making sure that the student doesn’t fall through the cracks.”
—Emily Krause, City Year

Diplomas Now just began in fall 2016 at Frankford, thanks to a generous grant from AT&T, so that data will be crunched in the future. But the goals for school leaders, according to Thomas, are to see attendance at 91 percent for all students, to have no suspensions, and to move at least 67 percent of students who currently have D grades or below into at the “on-track” range, which includes C grades and above.

These three categories, attendance, behavior, and course performance—“the ABCs”—are the early-warning signs that the Diplomas Now model is designed to improve because when a student displays no problems in these areas, she or he is far more likely to graduate. In Diplomas Now schools, teams of teachers teach the same cohorts of students so that they can more easily identify students who need support and collaborate to devise individualized intervention plans.

“That’s the beauty of the partnership between the three organizations,” said Thomas, who trains the teacher teams to use school data to identify students with early-warning signs. The teacher teams at Frankford meet twice a week and often include Milhollen or City Year corps members who are able to provide insights on students’ troubles that might not be immediately apparent to their teachers.

“The meetings are great space where everyone can get on the same page. If a student has a serious need, the teachers know who to go to, that’s the benefit of having a collaborative model,” said Emily Krause, who leads Frankford’s 10 City Year corps members.

Krause added that once an intervention plan for a student has been developed, one teacher or mentor usually becomes the “champion” for each student. “By making sure that one person is the owner of the action step, we move one step closer to making sure that the student doesn’t fall through the cracks.”

“We are literally talking about a paradigm shift here. When you are influencing and changing school culture, it takes time.”
—Jacqueline Thomas, Talent Development Secondary

Thomas stresses that this model—with its emphasis on putting additional adults in the building—takes some of the burden off of teachers, who are working hard to provide quality instruction in the classroom, and simply do not have time to provide individualized support for each of their students every day. From her perspective, the implementation of the Diplomas Now model at Frankford is moving along swiftly, though she recognizes that thoroughly changing a school takes time.

“We are literally talking about an entire paradigm shift here,” Thomas said. “When you are influencing and changing culture, it takes time.” The full Diplomas Now model is currently being implemented only in the key transition year of ninth grade at Frankford. But a number of initiatives to support the whole school are also underway.

Milhollen has worked with Ms. Morris, the counselor, and other administrators to make sure that teachers are aware of all of the resources available to students both inside and outside of the building. The school partners with various external social-service agencies to offer programs on various issues like healthy eating, in addition to support groups for students on topics such as mental health, sexual health, and grief management.

“In the future, when I wake up every day, I want to know that I love my job.”
—Nasiyah Stepp

Moreover, City Year members—often among the first to arrive and the last to leave the school every day—greet students with cheers to create a positive atmosphere. They also have a presence at school events, such as dances, assemblies, sports games, and other outings for students. Such efforts to make Frankford a more exciting and engaging place motivate students like Nasiyah to stay on track.

Nasiyah has been open to talking with Milhollen about taking steps to overcome her challenges. Early in the school year, he had a heart-to-heart with her about the importance of attending school every day for her future—and it resonated.

“In the future, when I wake up every day, I want to know that I love my job,” Nasiyah said. She, like most ninth graders, is unsure of exactly what she wants to do, but is interested in game design, animation, and the arts. “I just hope that I will pass and be able to have a good time.”

“You are going to pass,” Milhollen encouraged.

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