Program targets at-risk junior high students to raise graduation rates

Graduation coach Luis Tinajero, leftt, plays a guitar game with Fortino Villareal during an end of year celebration in Modesto, Calif., on July 17, 2014. Tinajero runs a mentoring program, funded through United Way, at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.
Graduation coach Luis Tinajero, leftt, plays a guitar game with Fortino Villareal during an end of year celebration in Modesto, Calif., on July 17, 2014. Tinajero runs a mentoring program, funded through United Way, at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.

Three sets of eighth-graders will get an extra hand up over the coming school year, the second year of an intensive program to turn around struggling lives early.

The one-to-one Graduation Coaches program, funded by the United Way, started in November at Hanshaw Middle School in southwest Modesto, Prescott Junior High in north Modesto and Creekside Middle School in Patterson.

At an end-of-summer session celebration Thursday, coaches talked about challenges met in introducing the personalized program and – now established – their plans to reach higher targets this coming school year.

Much of this year’s progress came in trust and social skills, shared in telling stories.

“I had a student who was working really hard to raise his grades and suddenly I saw this big drop,” said Sandra Chavarria, the Prescott coach. She called the student to her room and, after a long talk, got to the bottom of it.

“He hadn’t wanted to ask anybody for supplies. He was embarrassed to ask the teacher,” Chavarria said. “A 50-cent poster board cost so much – it came to a 30 percent grade drop.”

She got the board, spoke with the teacher and the boy was able to raise his grade. “When you’re in seventh grade, nobody wants to be that person who doesn’t have money for a project at school,” she said.

As trust builds, catching problems early will get easier, Chavarria said. “It was a small problem with an easy solution, but sometimes somebody’s got to be there to listen.”

In a nutshell, that describes the $100,000-a-year program run by the Center for Human Services and paid for by thousands of tiny paycheck donations to the United Way.

A student survey, grades and behavior factored into choosing 40 seventh-graders at each site. The group looked for the kids least interested in doing well in school, said United Way President Francine DeCiano. “The aim was to get students who don’t already get services,” she said. “Those are the ones that fall through the cracks.”

The three programs revolve around a graduation coach who meets weekly with each of the 40 students and offers voluntary after-school and summer programs. Coaches serve as a central hub for grades, discipline and attendance issues involving these kids, working with parents to solve home issues, like getting to school or time for homework. All the coaches are college graduates and bilingual.

The core program of all three programs hews to Check & Connect, a University of Minnesota-designed intervention program, but each has its own style. Downey High students who went to Hanshaw volunteered as tutor-mentors at their alma mater last year. At Prescott, adult mentors with a Stanislaus County volunteer program met during lunch with the students.

“We can’t just have a cookie-cutter program. It’s personalized to the students,” said Creekside coach Luis Tinajero. At Creekside, which has sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Tinajero formed an after-school Life Plan club and students built a school garden.

Just running for officer positions was a revelation for his kids, Tinajero said. “Running for president is not something these kids get to do,” he said.

At the school year’s end, he asked the middle schoolers what they would like to do differently in their eighth-grade year.

“That was something in itself, because they don’t normally get asked that,” Tinajero said. They wanted to bring in some sixth-graders and be mentors to them, he said, beaming. He will work next year with the same students as eighth-graders, as will all the coaches.

Ideally, a second coach would start at each school in the fall to work with the next group of seventh-graders, DeCiano said. But she has found funding for only one school so far.

Tinajero said he counts the partial year as a first step, time to establish a campus presence and learn what works.

Among things he’s learned on the job is to break letter grades down into percentages. “If a kid looks at an F and a month later it’s still an F, that’s not encouraging. But if I can say, ‘Hey, it was at 30 percent and you’ve brought it up to 50 percent,’ then he gets excited,” Tinajero said. He stands ready to call parents with any good news as an incentive for students, even a move to a higher F.

One of his students started in November with a 1.5 grade-point average – a D-plus. But “something clicked” during a conversation about the future, he said, and now she’s talking about going to college. Her GPA now stands at 2.9 – a B. “She’s worried about her grades. She wants to make the honor roll,” Tinajero said. “I’m going to teach her how to get there.”

Next year, he hopes to see widespread academic progress. “They’re not all exactly where we want them to be, but they’re on their way.”

At Hanshaw, coach Alicia Ayon started with some students who had a zero GPA. “Their grades were already so low, they just gave up,” she said. But with encouragement and tutoring, all moved the needle at least a bit.

Sometimes, the greatest progress showed in the cafeteria, not the grade book. Students who sat in a corner, speaking to no one, she said, “were able to make relationships, be more social and not so isolated.”

The Downey tutors played a part in that, with teens and tweens gravitating to find their own mentor matches, she said. The Downey teens were picked for personality and tutoring skills. “We chose good kids with really bright futures,” Ayon said.

Like other coaches, she spent her first months introducing the program to a skeptical community. Some families took a lot of convincing that the program could help, she said.

Some parents even turned down the service, said Rhonda Dahlgren, program leader for the Center for Human Services. “Often, it’s not only the kids who are disengaged from school, it’s families,” she said, adding with a shrug, “They’re used to always hearing bad news.”

Data on these students’ progress will be out in a month or so, but the early numbers look good, Dahlgren said. “All improved to some extent.”

One of her success stories was a Prescott 12-year-old whom Dahlgren first saw sitting sullen, hood up, through a legal hearing. “He was one step away from being expelled. He was almost numb, no expression,” she said. After months of steady contact with Chavarria, a difficult day for her became a turning point for him.

“He came in and told her, ‘Miss C, you look a little sad today. Maybe it’s my turn to be the mentor today,’ ” Dahlgren said. Without the intensive help, that brooding adolescent had little hope, she said. “I don’t know if he would have graduated.”