For years, public school districts in South Florida have focused relentlessly on raising academic achievement. Now there's a national movement to concentrate on factors outside of school that can lead to failure in the classroom.
New York City just announced a pilot program to help the "whole child." Miami-Dade Public Schools started its own effort this school year.
"What we determined is that some students need early intervention, it's not an option," said Martha Harris of the Miami-Dade School District.
Harris directs the new program. The district hired 60 "success coaches." Each one works at a different elementary or middle school.
"By getting to students early, by forming a bond with their parents, by making a connection with the community, we can help kids succeed, we can set them on the right path," Harris said.
Mylinda Watts is the success coach at Norland Middle School. Her job is to try to prevent at-risk kids from sliding off the rails.
"I think every child needs a champion, every child needs that superhero in their life and Ms. Watts has become that person," said Ronald Redmon, the principal at Norland Middle.
How do they choose which kids receive the intervention? The schools focus on early warning signs in the ABC's: Attendance, Behavior and Course Work.
"In that process, you've seen students go from lower performing students to honor roll students," Redmon said.
Watts monitors their grades and attendance every day, hoping for progress, but alert for signs of slippage in the classroom.
"I could be on it at a drop of the hat. I can stop, make that call, I can make an appointment to see them, I make home visits, because sometimes that's what it takes," Watts said. "There was a student that had a humongous amount of absences from school, when I called and spoke to the parent, the parent was in transition, the parent was actually homeless."
Watts hears heartbreaking stories of family dysfunction every day. She pulls every string, including calling on outside social service agencies, to solve the problems faced by her students. The principal says he already sees signs of success with his success coach.
"I've seen a tremendous turnaround," Redmon said.
So far, it's just anecdotal evidence, but when chronically truant kids show up for school every day and others who were on the verge of failure improve their grades, it’s cause for celebration at Norland Middle School.
The school district is monitoring the program closely, compiling data on it, to see how it can be improved upon next year.