TAMPA — Struggling students at New Tampa's Liberty Middle School used to pass the day in relative anonymity.
No more, said Antonio Bradford, the school's success coach.
"When I'm looking outside my office and I see kids walking by, I know them," he said.
Bradford is among dozens of foot soldiers in a yearlong effort to bolster the safety net for kids who are at risk of dropping out of school.
Dubbed the "Student Success Program," the experiment has passed its first year with increased resources and largely encouraging results.
"It's incredible, in one year, the work we are doing to support kids," said Shaylia McRae, director of the program.
Attendance and behavior have improved, according to data on 5,574 middle and high school students, which compares the first report card quarter of this year with the first quarter of 2014.
Academic progress is mixed, with middle school students showing slightly lower grades and high school students getting higher grades. Overall, grade point averages increased for 58 percent of the students.
"It's hard to compare last year to this year because kids grow in rigor," McRae said.
And because grade point averages are cumulative, she said, "they don't move so quickly. Discipline is something you can see right away and fix right away."
Former superintendent MaryEllen Elia unveiled the success program in 2014, around the time the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights initiated an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination in the school district.
That investigation is still under way.
But district officials said work on the student success program predated the federal inquiry.
The idea was to identify the 100 most at-risk students in every middle and high school, based on issues that included attendance, grades and behavior.
Dropout-prevention specialists were renamed success coaches, to set a more encouraging tone. They were asked to collaborate with counselors and administrators.
The at-risk group was 57 percent male. Ethnically, 35 percent were Hispanic, which matches the overall district population. Black students made up 34 percent — compared with 21 percent for the district — and white students accounted for 24 percent, compared with 35 percent districtwide.
The program has since been enhanced to include training and screening for the success coaches. The number of schools involved has grown to 57 from 53.
Separately, the district is preparing to name eight to 10 "priority" schools that, because of poverty and other challenges, will receive additional attention beginning in the 2016-17 school year.
Sligh Middle School, just south of Sulphur Springs, was the first to receive that distinction. It has two success coaches.
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At a training session Thursday, coaches examined the first-quarter data, programwide and school by school.
The 81 percent decrease in referrals was the most dramatic, although that was likely affected by a new district emphasis on avoiding suspensions.
The data also showed a 63 percent improvement in attendance.
Academic results were mixed, with 58 percent of all students improving, but only 45 percent of middle school students.
Even using grade point averages, that result is the hardest result to measure, McRae said. For one thing, a student might be learning more in a tougher class, even though the grade doesn't reflect it.
Or the opposite can happen.
"I have kids with a reading teacher on maternity leave, a vacancy in algebra 1 and a vacancy in biology," said King High School success coach Tammy Crawford-Morse. "The kids are getting hundreds on busy work and failing their assessments because they have not been taught."
She has also noticed kids are skipping class when they're taught by substitutes, "which also affects my discipline."
More often, the coaches said, they contend with students who have overwhelming challenges outside school or who are trying to bring their averages up after years of failing grades.
The coaches develop detailed plans for the students while using social work and frank conversation about the strategies they will need to get on track.
"We are there to offer that consistent support of a person who's really looking out for them," McRae said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol