NEW PORT RICHEY — Brian Green should be a 10th grader this year.
He spent his freshman year at Ridgewood High School "partying" though, and had straight F's to show for it.
"I had better things to do at the time," the soft-spoken redhead explained matter-of-factly. "I wasn't thinking about school."
That hasn't stopped Ridgewood High administrators and teachers from spending a great deal of time thinking about Green and others like him.
Faced with possible sanctions as one of the state's lowest performing schools, Ridgewood needed to find ways to identify and help teens who weren't finding success in class (not to mention not attending). And just using anecdotes to determine which kids get added services would not be good enough.
So the staff created an early warning system based on student grades, attendance, discipline referrals and other related details, with the goal of determining what level of intervention (if any) each student might need. Ridgewood officials got an early start on this because the struggling school falls under state accountability rules. Other Pasco high schools are also developing similar plans.
"We choose who needed it based on the data," assistant principal Kathy Leeper said.
• They pinpointed that just eight of the school's seniors at risk of not graduating on time had "easily correctable" grade-point issues, falling just below the required 2.0. Those students are closely monitoring their grades to make sure they don't fall short. No Ds for them.
• They learned that 29 percent of freshmen failed three or more classes last year. By creating an academy that segregates freshmen from the rest of the school and helps them make the transition to high school, Ridgewood has seen that stat almost disappear so far this year.
• They found each of last year's 98 ninth-graders who did not make it into the 10th grade this year and figured out why. Then they sent Shannon Matthews, one of the school's new graduation coaches, to shepherd those students toward success.
"I tell them, 'I'm on your side,' " Matthews said, after calling a parent to report that her child hadn't shown up for in-school suspension. "If a play calls for a run to go to the left, and you're going to the right, we're going to get you to the left. We're in it for the win."
That often means riding herd on kids who are skipping, but also taking up their cause with other teachers who can be quick to judge. The coach and students talk weekly, reviewing progress toward goals, with grades and credits at their fingertips to discuss.
Such an approach took Green aback at first.
"I didn't like her. She gave me attitude," he recalled of Matthews. "But then I kind of got where she is coming from. She's trying to help kids out, get them to where they graduate on time, get them credits, all that good stuff."
In short order, this no-nonsense approach won him over. With Matthews watching out for him, Green boosted his grades to two A's, two B's, a C and a D. He's making up credits through computer courses after school, and he's on track to be a 10th grader by Christmas.
"I miss it," Green said of the partying life. "But I gotta do what I gotta do now. I need to pass sometime. I don't want to be 20-something years old and still in high school."
He's not alone. Following the data, Leeper knows that not one of the school's repeating freshmen is failing out this year, and only one of the school's repeating sophomores is making all F's.
"We're seeing tons and tons of turnaround," Leeper said.
The graduation coaches are a key piece of the puzzle.
A year ago, Ridgewood had just one person responsible for tracking and helping at-risk students. This year, thanks to some reorganization, there's a team of six focused on the effort.
The school was able to marshal those resources in part by changing the organization of its dropout-prevention program. The program moved from a pull-out system in portables, which Leeper called "degrading," and instead put students into regular courses supported by learning labs where anyone can go for extra help.
That move, along with a federal school improvement grant, allowed Ridgewood to assign graduation coaches to all grade levels, as well as a guidance counselor focused on those students and a teacher and aide in a NovaNet credit recovery lab. That self-paced computerized program is aimed at upperclassmen who have fallen behind, and not at freshmen or sophomores.
The teachers have stopped making relaxed suggestions about how to make up credits, improve school performance and so forth, Matthews said.
"Now the tone is, 'You will.' We don't wait for them to come," she said. "Students respond to it better that way."
The school also set a new tone for in-school suspension, where students must bring lesson plans and must spend the day doing school work. It also created incentive programs for students who behave well and who achieve.
"This is a great thing that is happening at Ridgewood," said longtime teacher Catherine Adair, the graduation coach for juniors and seniors. "I think it's going to make much more of them successful."
Mike Castillo is a junior who should be a senior. He fell behind as a freshman, when he skipped all his classes and "didn't really care."
He credited the school's NovaNet teacher and lab with giving him the opportunity to get on track to graduate on time, and for the first time to qualify to play on the school football team. He, too, saw Ridgewood moving in the right direction.
"The teachers here do a good job. The majority of the reason the school is the way it is, is because of kids who are like me when I was a freshman," Castillo said.
After hearing his comments, ninth-grade graduation coach Cary Green invited Castillo to speak to struggling freshmen so they can hear a peer talk about the need to focus in school — yet another way the school is pulling together resources to turn itself around.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.