The goal of Greenville’s OnTrack Middle Grades Success Initiative is to boost high school graduation rates.

OnTrack middle school intervention harnesses collective impact of community, education, and philanthropic partners

Sometimes the best way to change the way a story ends is to start in the middle.

To boost high school graduation rates — ultimately creating a positive ripple effect in the community — Greenville’s OnTrack Middle Grades Success Initiative starts by identifying challenges faced by at-risk middle schoolers. The program then marshals the expertise of intervention partners and community resources to offer targeted solutions for each child, while also changing the school culture to benefit all students.

Facilitated by United Way, the initiative is based on research that identified three indicators that, if significantly off-track in middle school, predict students have only a 20 percent chance of high school completion: school attendance; behavior; and course performance.

The Social Innovation Fund grant that makes OnTrack possible required local matching funds, so philanthropic partners such as the Graham Foundation, Hollingsworth Funds, and the Community Foundation of Greenville came on board early.

“The Community Foundation has long recognized the importance of education in shaping the kind of community we want to have,” said Bob Morris, president. “Our commitment of $750,000 over five years was the second largest in our history.”

Launched in 2015, OnTrack began in four middle schools in the White Horse Road community where 100 percent of students qualify for free lunch: Berea, Lakeview and Tanglewood Middle Schools; and Greenville Early College. In each school, an early-warning response team monitors attendance, behavioral referrals, and test scores to identify students who may be starting to disengage, then looks deeper for underlying factors.

“Teachers, social workers, and other school personnel on the team look at the data, consider what’s happening in the student’s life, and assign an intervention to address the root cause,” said Tobi Kinsell, director.

Communities In Schools provides student support specialists in each school to coordinate student and family supports such as tutoring, transportation, and affordable housing for off-track students.

Another intervention partner, Greenville Health System, opened a School-Based Health Center in each school to provide basic health care, and referrals for dental and mental health care. By providing sports physicals, it enabled three times as many girls to try out for athletic teams.

To address academic issues, especially summer learning loss, a free, six-week summer program is offered by Building Educated Leaders for Life. The full-day learning experience combines academic instruction with enrichment activities, mentorship, and community-service projects.

“Transportation, breakfast, and lunch are provided for 240 students. In addition to learning math and English, they go on field trips like visits to colleges,” Kinsell said. “The average summer learning loss is two months; it’s higher for low-income students. Last year, our students averaged two months’ gain in math and English.”

While it’s too soon to measure OnTrack’s effect on graduation rates, the schools report a 29 percent reduction in behavioral referrals, which means more time spent in class.

When reflecting on the program’s early implementation, Kinsell said the successful partnership is what she is most proud of, because of its impact on students and the way the partners have leveraged relationships between themselves in unexpected ways, resulting in increased volunteer and financial resources for schools.

“It’s a massive undertaking for partner organizations to come out of our silos and truly collaborate to support students,” Kinsell said. “Our implementation partners are like pillars that, when added to what the school system already provides, create an ecosystem of support.”

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