MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Schools have always used test scores as a way of tracking progress. But more and more, schools are adding in other data points: grades, attendance, and even intangibles like behavior. By doing this, some educators think they can spot at-risk students before they act up or drop out of school.
From member station WLRN, Sammy Mack reports on one data-driven effort in Miami.
SAMMY MACK, BYLINE: There's a conference room at Miami Carol City Senior High nicknamed the War Room. Gathered here, around a heavy wood table, are about a dozen teachers, administrators and sports coaches.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You'll see all the students we're going to discuss today, little details about them. And I'll give you a chance to look through your packets.
MACK: Also at the table: analysts from the group Talent Development that monitors student data, the non-profit City Year which provides mentors, and there's Communities in Schools which connects kids to stuff like healthcare and social services.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So the packet, I've given specific strategies and information that will help in terms of working with these students, factors related to underachievement.
MACK: It's a lot of cooks in the kitchen but they're all here to help the students who are just starting to show signs of trouble. It works like this. An analyst gathers information on attendance, behavior, and performance in math and English. Then, based on some dropout risk studies from Johns Hopkins University, she flags kids who are on a downward trend. Those names show up on PowerPoint slides at the weekly meeting in the War Room.
Today, there are three kids on the list.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: We'll move on to the next student. And he got a haircut so he looks a little different today.
MACK: A projector beams the image of a student up at the front of the room.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: He is demonstrating attendance, a little bit of skipping, course performance...
MACK: His photo is accompanied by a spreadsheet of his grades so far this year. The most recent report card has a lot more Ds and Fs than the first part of the year.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: He came to me last week and he said to me, he says: I'm hungry - I haven't had anything to eat all day. I had a bag of chips and I gave it to him.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If that happens again and he says that he's hungry, we keep snacks in the office.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It was at the end of the day...
MACK: Turns out that student spent a week and a half this semester living in a car. The team discuss his options: putting him in touch with homeless services, strategies to help him manage his time. A sports coach volunteers to coordinate everything.
This kind of interaction between different school departments didn't used to happen.
TRACY TROY: If we don't get to the core of the problem, we can't teach them.
MACK: Tracy Troy teaches math and special education. She's been at Carol City for 14 years. When the meetings were first introduced three years ago, Troy says she was apprehensive about getting involved with students' problems outside her classroom.
TROY: Not that I don't care but I care too much. And sometimes, I, you know, it weighs on you because those are your children while you're here.
MACK: Now, she says the War Room meetings help her help the kids.
The program identifies 150 to 200 students a year at Carol City. It costs about $600 per student annually to run the Diplomas Now program like this. Last school year, a third of students who were flagged for missing school got back on track to graduation. Two-thirds of students who were having behavioral problems made a turnaround.
PAIGE KOWALSKI: The point of all this isn't to collect data. It's to change what's happening for individual kids.
MACK: Paige Kowalski is a state policy director for the Data Quality Campaign, a group that advocates for better use of all that student information the states collect. She says about 20 states have developed early warning systems like the one here at Carol City. Kowalski says schools can learn a lot from the medical field.
KOWALSKI: We don't just put out reports saying, you know, the hospital lost all these patients and saved these people. They actually look at it and say what can we do better?
MACK: On the day I visit Carol City, I see the data working for a soft-spoken 10th grader named Mack Godbee. Earlier this year, he was the subject of a War Room meeting.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
MACK: Its report card day and Godbee is going over his grades with his mentor, Natasha Santana-Viera.
NATASHA SANTANA-VIERA: You have - Aguilera, you raised your C to a B, so congratulations on that.
MACK GODBEE: I sat down and I talked with her like you told me to.
MACK: The first quarter on Godbee's report card is littered with Ds and Fs. This quarter, there are more Cs and Bs. He's got an A in English.
SANTANA-VIERA: And when you need help, do you know where to go?
GODBEE: Straight to y'all.
MACK: How different do you think your life would be right now if you hadn't gotten into the Diplomas Now program?
GODBEE: Oh, that's easy. Tell you no lie, I think I would have ended up dead.
MACK: Ended up dead, he says, because he was spending a lot of time on the street. When his dad left, Godbee says he wanted to show his mom they didn't need him. He started selling drugs. He was six. He says by the time he got to high school, he was affiliated with a gang. He skipped classes, didn't study, he was angry all the time, which would be easy to miss. Godbee is quiet, thin, and on the day we meet, he's dressed in a soft cotton oxford buttoned at the neck.
But earlier this school year, after looking at the data, Miss Santana sat Godbee down and asked.
GODBEE: Are you OK? I sat right there and I thought about it. Like, am I really OK?
MACK: For the first time in his life, he said no. He doesn't want to be the person he's been.
GODBEE: I want to be that kid that make straight As and Bs on his report card. Be in school every day on time. Like, be on that honor roll list. Go on field trips.
MACK: Godbee has a lot to work on. But according to the data, he's on an upward trend.
For NPR News, I'm Sammy Mack in Miami.