Middle school can be a difficult time in life.
Nearly a year ago the counseling program 'School Is Cool' was launched in 10 middle schools across Broward County with the help of the Community Foundation of Broward. The program targets students who have issues with attendance, behavior or poor grades and works with them to boost involvement at school.
Now the program is almost ready to expand to even more schools.
'School is Cool' first began in 2011 in hopes of boosting the county's high school graduation rate. The Community Foundation of Broward funded the program through several smaller nonprofit agencies, but it was only available during summer months and after the school day.
Last year the foundation decided to grow the program and partnered directly with the Broward school district to create 'School is Cool 2.0,' just before the Parkland school shooting.
The Foundation matched the Broward County school district with a $3 million grant - its largest to date - for a new three-year pilot program during the regular school day. That money placed two counselors each, called community liaisons, in 10 middle schools at the start of this academic year: Apollo Middle, Attucks Middle, Crystal Lake Middle, Lauderdale Lakes Middle, New Renaissance Middle, New River Middle, Nova Middle, Parkway Middle, Silver Lakes Middle and Sunrise Middle School.
The goal of the program is to focus on better social health for at-risk middle schoolers before they get to high school, with the hope of getting the graduation rate to 90 percent. (The high school graduation rate in 2018 was 84.3 percent, according to the district.)
The community liaisons placed at each school have been in place since August to supplement teachers' lesson plans. They reach out to students individually about attendance, behavior and course performance - a strategy called the ABCs.
"The number one thing we're seeing...[is] culture change within middle schools," said the foundation's Vice President of Grants and Initiatives, Sheri Brown. "The schools are experimenting with a new way of instructing the students who are enrolled in the program. They've begun to use strategies to help young people deal with day-to-day challenges they face, and they may not have anyone to turn to talk about these challenges."
Brown said emotional health for teens has always been an important link to graduation rates. But it's even more important now, after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
"I think the Parkland tragedy amplified the need for the schools to pay closer attention to kids who may fall off the radar in terms of their social, emotional health," Brown said.
The foundation hopes to add up to 15 more schools to the program by next year. It plans to offer the program at every middle school in Broward County by the 2020-2021 school year.
"What we're going to do is look at what's working, what isn't, what changes need to be made - before we expand it to the additional schools," Brown said.