Building the “Wall of Champions” – OnTrack year one in review

Building the “Wall of Champions” – OnTrack year one in review

In the fall of 2015 when Rushawnda Olden, a Student Support Specialist at Communities In Schools, claimed a bulletin board at Lakeview Middle School for students to post their academic accomplishments, she hoped it would be an indicator of the culture change she and other OnTrack Greenville partners hoped to see in the first year of their collaboration for middle school success in the White Horse Road community. Thanks to the many champions supporting OnTrack Greenville, these students are indeed on track toward graduation.

OnTrack Greenville, Greenville County, South Carolina’s biggest and most collaborative effort to ensure middle school students stay on track to high school graduation, has recently completed its first academic year. The partnership includes United Way of Greenville County as fiscal agent, Greenville County Schools, Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL), Communities In Schools, Greenville Health System, and Public Education Partners and is funded with a five year, $5 million grant from the Social Innovation Fund and the support of numerous local grantors.  Initiative partners are focused on five year goals to impact four White Horse Road middle schools by increasing math and English/Language Arts proficiency, reducing chronic absenteeism by 75%, and decreasing disciplinary referrals and out-of-school suspension by 50%.  The partners are singularly focused on the students, whom they place at the center of their work, seeking to remove all barriers to success at home and in school.

Communities In Schools staff members Susi Smith, Rushawnda Olden, and Megan Remaley recently attended a Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy meeting for OnTrack funders to report on their first year’s work as Implementation Partners.  Communities in Schools’ mission is to surround students with a community of support empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.

“Through OnTrack Greenville, we have been able to implement our model with fidelity, providing integrated student support services to three times more students than before,” said Susi Smith, Communities In Schools Executive Director. “During this first year, OnTrack partners have come together to create a community of support around these schools, assuring that all students have the resources they need to be successful.”

As an OnTrack partner, Communities In Schools delivers three tiers of services.  Tier One services are directed at the whole school, and include activities such as career planning and exploration, family night activities and speakers and performers.  Tier Two and Three supports are oriented toward individual students based on their needs.  Last year, these services ranged from academic assistance to case management to help with basic needs and resources. Communities In Schools accomplishes this through their staff and – as the name suggests – by bringing community resources into the school.

Communities In Schools staff walk alongside faculty to support students with their non-academic needs and augment what’s happening in the classroom.

Rushawnda shared one small but significant example of blossoming success at Lakeview Middle School.

“When the school year started, I claimed a blank bulletin board in the seventh grade hall and put a sign on it naming it the ‘Wall of Champions.’ I told the students that if they earned an 80% or higher on any quiz or test – which is a C – they could put their name on the wall.”

The first quarter, the wall remained mostly empty.  “I think at first students weren’t getting the grades they needed to claim a spot on the wall or if they were, they didn’t want to let people know of their achievement.”  But as the school year went by, more and more sticky notes were added to the wall.

“By the end of the year, the entire bulletin board was covered,” says Rushawnda.  “Notes were stuck to other notes, they spread out onto the wall, they were falling onto the floor there were so many.  We saw a total change in school culture.”

Wall-of-champions

The “Wall of Champions” featured few proud students during the first quarter. But as the ’15-’16 school year progressed, the number of champions claiming a spot to tout their test success boomed.

See Rushawnda Olden and Communities In Schools at work…

During 2015-16 – its first academic year – the OnTrack Greenville partnership has reached critical milestones to build the collaboration, both its mechanics and culture, and to provide services to students.

The Early Warning and Response System, which consists of GC Source – a computer system that flags students as soon as issues arise with attendance, behavior, and course performance – and of multidisciplinary teams in each school that meet weekly to discuss and plan for students flagged by GC Source, was fully up and running by November of 2015.  Because Greenville County Schools found GC Source to be such a powerful tool for principals and faculty, district administrators made the system available to all middle and high schools in January.  “The strongest statement from partners is that they are catching kids that would have fallen through the cracks without GC Source,” said Tobi Kinsell, Director of OnTrack Greenville.

Implementation Partners of BELL, Communities in Schools, Greenville County Schools’ teen leadership program and mental health specialists, Greenville Health System’s School Based Health Centers, and Public Education Partners were fully operational in the fall semester and began serving students and faculty identified by the EWRS team members.  While the evaluation will measure impact, the interventions provided by the Implementation partners have already resulted in increased student success (see below).

Community and Parent Engagement grew significantly during the first year and will continue throughout the initiative.  Originally, development of OnTrack Greenville was most informed by research and by the expert partners around the table.  But now that the initiative is underway, OnTrack partners and staff are connecting with families and those most affected by the work.  What barriers are you seeing?  What do you think will make the most difference?  What is important to you?  This is the focus of Sabrina Miller, School and Community Facilitator for OnTrack Greenville, and a key value adopted by the partnership.

Speaking of values, during year one, collaboration members adopted a Partnership Agreement that articulates shared values, methods for operation, and more.  OnTrack staff are mindful of the nature of the collaboration as much as they are the operations of it, because it is the relationships, culture and values of the partnership that will sustain the work over time and make the approach part of the community’s fabric.

Evaluation of OnTrack Greenville is multifaceted, and preparation of all evaluation methods was a final key milestone.  There are three tiers of evaluation. First, the Implementation Partners are each being evaluated by specialists from the Riley Institute at Furman University, both to determine whether they are implementing their interventions with fidelity and to determine if they are having the intended impact.  Each of these detailed evaluations was approved by the Social Innovation Fund in May after a year’s work and planning.  A second level of evaluation examines the full portfolio of interventions to see if it is in fact boosting middle school success in attendance, behavior, and core course performance.  Third, the Gramercy Group – an evaluation consulting firm from North Carolina – is conducting a developmental evaluation to understand the nature of the collaboration and its collective impact.  These evaluations will provide unprecedented data regarding middle school interventions, drop-out prevention, and collective impact work and will make our success much more replicable.

But as we await the first impact evaluation results (anticipated in January 2018), the more short term outputs are already impressive.  A few data points:

  • Communities in Schools students improved on 80% of their goals
  • GHS’s School Based Health Centers saw 341 visits and performed 68 sports physicals, and 93% of students who visited the health centers returned to class rather than being sent home
  • 100% of teachers said that BELL students increased their self confidence
  • 469 students completed teen leadership training, focusing on empathy, confidence, goal setting, and more
  • 16,500 books were distributed for classrooms and home
  • More than 400 volunteers were engaged in schools
  • More than 175 new resources were provided to support students

OnTrack Greenville is not without its challenges.  It is complex work to deal with sometimes daunting barriers faced by students, parents, schools and neighborhoods.  It requires open and honest communication, which can be difficult and simply time consuming.  Differing organizational cultures mean partners sometimes speak different languages and have different expectations.  Engaging parents and the community can be awkward as professionals learn how to do this well, and following through on what’s learned from them can test assumptions and alter plans.

But partners have every reason to be optimistic. As Robin Mill, principal of Berea Middle School, says, “OnTrack is helping us be the school we have always wanted to be.”