When two local filmmakers were invited into Beth Adam’s classroom two years ago at Mark Twain Middle School in SAISD, they were immediately impressed with the results of the Middle School Partners Program.
“As we talked with her, the kids were working quietly behind her, but they got progressively more interested (in us) and started chatting,” said documentarian and videographer Jim Mendiola.
These were the “bad” kids, the kids that flunked one or more grades and were skipping classes about three years ago. “She turned around and said, ‘High schoolers.’ They immediately got into their studies … I was impressed by their discipline.”
During 2012, in SAISD, about 12.1% of students fail to graduate. Once students fall behind in middle school, they’re even more likely to dropout in high school – a 90% chance they will. Completion of the Partners Program reduces that chance to 10%.
Adams treats them like high schoolers, so they strive to act like it, he said. About half their time is spent on core eighth-grade classes and the other half is spent on laptops, taking ninth-grade courses at their own pace. They not only catch up, most “skip up” grades to start high school in their sophomore year.
“Every one has their ideas and everyone has their statistics,” Mendiola said of the multitude of studies and programs aimed at keeping kids in schools. “I wasn’t an (education) expert before and I’m certainly not one now – but in this case, with this program, it simply works.”
Mendiola and partner Faith Radle directed and produced, “Skipping Up” for the Independent Television Service as a part of the American Graduate initiative. The six short films selected to be in the series, most with Spanish versions and hosted on PBS’ website, share ways in which different schools and communities are reducing high school dropout rates in the Latino community. (If video player does not appear below, please refresh your browser.)
Each film illustrates a sampling of challenges many youth face – hurdles between them and completing high school – teen pregnancy, poverty, domestic violence, learning disabilities, medical issues, and immigration complications/adjustment. Each story is different, each program is different but what works for most kids and school districts is relatively simple.
“Narrow it down to the essentials,” Mendiola said. Hard work and a teacher that pays close attention.
Adams stays with her students — about 25 per teacher are grouped together — pretty much all day, every day. These students walk in 45 minutes before and stay two hours after other students. They come in on Saturdays and into the summer.
“She travels with them around the school. She’s constantly aware of how they’re doing,” Radle said. “She’s aware of the whole picture, the whole time … the primary thing is that someone is really keeping them on track, every day, working for that goal.
“The whole program got started when administrators sat down and actually talked (and listened) to the kids that were at risk of dropping out,” Radle said. “What they found is that kids actually want to succeed, but there needs to be a belief in them and that there is an endpoint in sight – which is hard to see when you’re behind.”
“The Partners Program was so successful in its pilot year, that it received a $14 million grant from the federal government to expand the program to every middle school in the San Antonio Independent School District,” states the film.
The high school drop-out rate for SAISD starts in middle school, said SAISD Administrator David Udovich in the film.
“There was almost 2,000 students that were two years or more over age in our middle schools – that’s a pretty good size high school. I said, oh, no wonder … we have a major problem. That’s when I knew that I had to come up with a program.”
Students profiled in the film, including most of the students in Adams’ class, are now attending high school and some are even starting on college coursework.
William Elizondo, who was held back in second grade because of dyslexia, is now attending Travis Early College High School and taking classes at San Antonio College. He joins fellow Middle School Partners Program graduate Maria Giron, who failed fifth grade because she couldn’t speak English after her family moved to the U.S.
Brandon Martinez, who considered dropping out after failing fourth-grade twice to get a job “flippin’ burgers,” is now attending Thomas Jefferson High School.
“If a student drops out of school, that’s one citizen that we’ve lost,” said Udovich. “It’s everybody, all of us, not (just) educators, I mean everybody that lives in your city, in your town, in any city in the United States, better be concerned about the drop-out rate … And I guarantee you, if you don’t start thinking about it now, it will come back to haunt you 10 or 15 years from now.”