‘Diplomas Now’ Champions Burbank Students Through Graduation

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Bekah S. McNeelWhat does it really take to turn the tide on high school drop-out rates? For an at-risk student, it takes a champion, someone whose commitment knows no bounds. But what about when nearly half the school is considered “at-risk?” That’s when it takes a team of champions.

Last week, potential funding partners witnessed a team of champions in action. They visited Burbank High School where ‘Diplomas Now ‘is in it’s second year of targeted drop-out intervention under the leadership of Blanca Rojas, the program’s school transformation facilitator (STF), and M. Yesenia Cordova, principal of Burbank HS.

Hollis MacDonald of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, Scott Metzger of the 80/20 Foundation, Kimberlee Morrison of Communities in Schools, and Elizabeth Bonar Moseley of City Year stop to appreciate the Burbank High School Attendance Chart, part of a targeted effort by Diplomas Now. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Hollis MacDonald of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, Scott Meltzer of the 80/20 Foundation, Kimberlee Morrison of Communities in Schools, and Elizabeth Bonar Moseley of City Year stop to appreciate the Burbank High School Attendance Chart, part of a targeted effort by Diplomas Now. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

A collaborative of innovative advocates of urban education, the Diplomas Now program has set its sights on the nation’s “drop-out factories,” the approximately 2,000 schools that produce half of all drop-outs in the United States. The program started in 2008 with a $5 million grant from PepsiCo, and thanks to the company’s continued support and a $30 million Investing in Innovation (i3) grant, Diplomas Now is on 31 campuses throughout the nation. In 2012-2013, the program was launched at  Rhodes Middle School and Burbank High School.

Along with the faculty and staff at Burbank High School, Diplomas Now brings together City YearCommunities in Schools (CIS), and the Johns Hopkins Talent Development Secondary program, which set the program motto: The Right Support to the Right Students at the Right Time.

The Right Support:

Communities in Schools is the nation’s largest drop-out prevention program. By connecting students and their families to community resources, CIS creates a network of support tailored to local issues and solutions. The “We Keep Kids in School” organization provides one-on-one attention for students who need a caring adult and family based social services. The CIS role in Diplomas Now is to connect particular needs to particular resources with lifelong success and community involvement in mind.

At Burbank, community resources range from ROPES Courses to the San Antonio Food Bank. CIS team members are trained to think about the student as an individual who is part of his or her own web of relationships and environmental factors, and to pursue community-based solutions accordingly.

City Year brings in Corps members who are 17-24 years old to create a “critical mass of people power.” They work on the Whole Child, Whole School method. Morning “power greetings” start off the day with positive energy for arriving students, and throughout the day that optimistic “near peer” role-modeling continues. Mentors are available for academic and emotional support throughout the school day. They also conduct a Freshmen Seminar to orient students to the demands and climate of high school. They seem to be everywhere.

Inside the City Year Corps room at Burbank High School, school spirit is the order of the day. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Inside the City Year Corps room at Burbank High School, school spirit is the order of the day. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

“Anywhere we need them, they help,” said Cordova.

Though you’d never know it now, this kind of idealistic energy was not well-received in the first year on campus.

“We were slushied and milked … I called my team the ‘Glee Team’,” said Elizabeth Bonar Moseley, a City Year senior manager who recalled being teased by her peers. She praised her team’s perseverance, which has paid off.

Now, on a  school tour

Liz Wright gives a campus tour, highlighting the impact of Diplomas Now at Burbank HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Liz Wright gives a campus tour, highlighting the impact of Diplomas Now at Burbank HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

with Team Leaders Liz Wright and Vladimir Amador, I witnessed students waving and shouting their accomplishments as we passed by.

The third leg of the support stool is the Johns Hopkins Talent Development program. It connects the efforts on the ground at Burbank to the leading research of Dr. Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins. The research provides the school with curriculum development, professional training, and administrative tools to maximize student engagement.Obviously the entire school needs to be engaged through curriculum and learning climate, but there are some students for whom one-on-one intervention is more urgent.

The Right Students:

Diplomas Now staff targets their interventions on the ABCs. Attendance, Behavior, and Course Performance. Students with high attendance, good behavior, and good grades are likely to graduate. The opposite is equally true.

Sounds pretty simple.

Behind those ABCs, however, are systemic issues that are not quite as simple as 1-2-3.  Research conducted by Balfanz and others has uncovered the tangled web of factors making the road to graduation look like the steeplechase.When a member of the Diplomas Now team gets involved with a student who has, say, poor attendance, they are often stepping into an entire narrative with a cast of contributing characters at home and at school.

To demonstrate this to potential funders at the event, Kimberlee Morrison of Communities in Schools asked four volunteers to take their places behind a line representing the first day of school. The volunteers each then received a character card, with the life circumstance of a real Burbank student (but not the student’s real name).

Some situations sounded hopeless. Drugs, illiteracy, and homelessness created unstable environments that lead to increased absences, behavior issues, and falling grades. Others were promising. Supportive parents, extra-curricular involvement, and community support led to increased leadership roles and strong grades.

Morrison then read a list of factors that are statistically related to graduation rates.

For example: “Take a step backward if your family lives paycheck to paycheck. Take a step forward if you live with both parents.”

The participants took steps toward and away from the “Graduation” sign. By the end of the demonstration, characters were spread across the room, and some were further away from graduation than when they had started.

So it’s not an easy fix. Based on a list of Early Warning Indicators (EWIs), the Diplomas Now team (which includes Burbank HS faculty and staff) sits down in weekly meetings to discuss at-risk students, what is being done to help them, and their progress in the A-B-Cs. Each student on the list is assigned a “champion.”

Which is how Liz Wright ended up walking one freshmen girl to every class. And Vladimir Amador found himself having lunch with a group of guys everyday, with the promise of cookies in exchange for their participation in what he called “50 Acts of Leadership.”

The Right Time:

According to Balfanz’s research, the crucial time to intervene with at-risk students can be summarized in one word: early.

Luther, the Burbank High School Mascot. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Luther, the Burbank High School Mascot. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

While we know that the path to success starts as early as preschool, sixth and ninth-grade are crucial course-setting years.  Diplomas Now focuses their teams on those two years to start. At Burbank, the class of 2015 will have Diplomas Now in their corner until they cross the graduation stage. With each new class of freshmen, the team will grow until every year is supported.

Balfanz’s research also shows that the first 30 days of the school year are crucial indicators as to whether or not the student will eventually drop out. Attendance problems that can be remedied in that window could have a profound effect on a student’s graduation prospects.

But students who are at-risk are never truly “in the clear.” There will be obstacles throughout their track to graduation beyond their first two years. That’s why the doors of the Diplomas Now team are always open. CIS and City Year both have resource rooms on the Burbank HS campus where students know that they can always find a tutor or a listening ear.

They can also find uniforms. One of the reforms brought on by the team was a change in the uniform infraction policy. Rather than being sent home, when a student comes to school out of uniform, they are taken to one of the resource rooms and given one to wear.

The Whole School approach means that when a kid is under discipline, the administration is still thinking strategically about how to keep them in class. The old theory of getting the “bad kids” out of class so the others can learn was simply leaving too few kids in the classroom altogether by their senior year.

That’s the change that Diplomas Now staff is making. These front-line educators are trying to turn the tide in urban education by keeping everyone in the boat and out of the water.


Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.


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3 thoughts on “‘Diplomas Now’ Champions Burbank Students Through Graduation

  1. Thank you for writing the positive efforts that are happening in our community. It’s so important to celebrate these successes no matter how big or how small.

  2. Great accomplishment for a school at one time was noted for closure and with a high drop out rate. Accentuating the positive is always a great moral lifter.

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