12/11/2012 02:18 pm ET Updated Dec 11, 2012

'Diplomas Now' Turns Around Failing Broadmoor Middle School In Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Broadmoor Middle School in Baton Rouge, La., had a 50 percent suspension rate three years ago, and one in four students there couldn't keep up on core subjects like English and math. Now, the school is boasting top performers and drastically lower discipline rates.

In a number of districts, including in New York City, the country's largest, the turnaround strategy for a failing school is to overhaul its infrastructure by laying off teachers, replacing staff and sometimes closing it altogether.

But at Broadmoor, a data-based model called "Diplomas Now" kept the school intact while tracking student performance beyond traditional methods like student test scores, PBS reports. The system adds to the evaluation formula tardiness, unexcused absences and poor behavior, and academic and social care professionals periodically assess the collected data.

Now, Broadmoor's suspension rate has fallen to just 15 percent, and the failure rate has plummeted to 7 percent from its previous 25 percent.

Diplomas Now operates using $30 million in 2009 federal stimulus funds in 44 schools across the country. Program founder Robert Balfanz, of Johns Hopkins University, says the method allows educators to pinpoint how the students and schools are performing while improving attendance and behavior alongside academic achievement.

"It's almost like insider trading for the social good," Balfanz told PBS.

Balfanz's work and research have been often cited in education reform efforts. His studies have suggested that there is a key period in middle school that determines whether a student will eventually drop out: If a sixth-grader in a high-poverty school attends school less than 80 percent of the time, fails math or English or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, there is a 75 percent chance he or she will drop out of high school.

A student drops out of high school every 26 seconds in the U.S., and of the 3.8 million students that start high school this year, a quarter won't go on to receive a diploma.

Dropouts are not eligible for 90 percent of the jobs in our economy, contributing to a rising unemployment rate among young adults. Students who don't finish high school will earn $200,000 less than those who do over their lifetimes, and $1 million less than a college graduate. In addition, dropouts cost taxpayers between $320 billion and $350 billion a year in lost wages, taxable income, health, welfare and incarceration costs, among others.

Balfanz tells PBS that of the 40 million Americans without a high school diploma, the majority come from a small group of about 5,000 schools -- a pool that he aims to target just like Broadmoor.

Watch PBS NewsHour's full report on Broadmoor's efforts and subsequent success in the video above.