BREAKING THE MOLD: BEARING WITNESS

Over the years I have had the privilege of visiting a few of the most successful high schools in New York State. These visits were part of a study conducted by PLC, Associates. All of these schools are high need; meaning they have poverty rates of at least 90%. Their student populations are in excess of 95% Black and Latino. Yet they break the mold! Their 4-year graduation rates are over 90%. There are very few serious disciplinary incidents. And the vast majority of students indicate that they’re most pleased with their relationships with their teachers and school leaders. Here are just a few anecdotes drawn from what I witnessed in several high schools.

  1. CREATING A CARING SAFE ENVIRONMENT–The first period starts at 8 AM. Upon entering the building at 7 AM, I encountered about 100 students already assembled in the large lobby and the adjacent cafeteria. By 7:30 the group has grown to about 500, 300 of whom occupying every seat in the cafeteria, most of whom are consuming breakfast. The principal, assistant principals and a handful of security guards are casually looking on. Scores of students come by and exchange hello’s and fist bumps with the staff. The staff seem to know everyone’s name. An assistant principal comments, “Our job is to be where the kids are to let them know we’re here for them.” The tone is relaxed and friendly. As teachers arrive, they scoop up small groups of students who accompany their teachers to their rooms for extra help or just to chat. At 7:30 the throng slowly disperses. Looking into the now empty cafeteria, there is almost no evidence that 300 teenagers had been there—no refuse on the floors, nothing left on the tabletops, and all the chairs neatly placed under the tables. A caring school culture cuts both ways—students recognize that the staff cares and in return students demonstrate that they care.
  2. PUTTING STUDENTS AT THE CENTER–An Anti-Gun assembly program was presented to celebrate the anniversary of the Parkland shooting. The entire program, attended by more than 300 students, featured student speakers who had suffered family losses to gun violence and a featured speaker. The 40-minute program was initiated, planned, led, and supervised by students. There were five staff members in attendance who passively observed the proceedings from the rear of the auditorium. The students in attendance were orderly, attentive and respectful. This was a remarkable event. At one point a student, who was obviously overcome emotionally, rushed out of the auditorium. As a staff member approached him, he flashed a small card, and the teacher backed away and following him at a reasonable distance. At the conclusion of the event, a female guidance counselor was standing outside the now locked bathroom, adjacent to the auditorium. After the crowd had dissipated, the now composed young man, accompanied by a custodian exited the bathroom, and went back to class. Why did the custodian get involved?  Because he lives in and is active in the community and the student know him and trust him. What was the significance of the small card he had flashed? The Principal explained that a “purple card” is issued to students who are known to be dealing with severe trauma in their lives. The students flash their card only when they are in emotional distress. The card signals that the student be allowed to leave his or her classroom without any questions be asked, and seek help while a security person monitors them, ascertaining that he or she needs help from a support person. There are about 25 such cards in circulation, and reportedly no one has ever abused the system. This is only one incident that illustrates how exceptional this school-community truly is. The students are responsible, are given space to be independent and express their social conscious and caring of one another. The staff listens to students’ wants and needs, and responds by trusting their students to do the right thing—and they do.
  3. FOSTERING AUTHENTIC RELATIONSHIPS—The High School Principal is not only visible but is a constant presence. He is an affable man with tremendous energy. As a result of his seven years of experience within the district, he has forged significant relationships with his students. As I walked the halls with him and witnessed his interactions with students, it is striking how he knows the names of the vast majority of his students, and that there is an authentic fondness between him and each student. He is a genuine cheerleader and advocate. He believes that a key role of the school is serving as the in loco parentis. He says, “The school has to replace things that are not taking place in their lives. This is their home away from home. So many get here by 7 AM and they’re still here until 6 PM.” A teacher reported to me, “Often times there are more staff members attending evening performances and sports events than parents. Many of their parents must work two jobs just to survive; they just can’t be home or be in attendance. We try to support our kids in every way we can. We have to make up for that.” He proudly goes on to say, “Not only do the adults in the school embrace the kids, but the kids embrace each other. They are accepting of one another. We have very little violence. I believe their parents understand what we have here, and in return the families choose to stay in the district. That’s how you build a school-community culture”.
  4. LISTENING TO PARENTS’ VOICES—During an hour-long conversation I had with about a dozen parents, there was a variety of viewpoints expressed during our frank, unfiltered discussion regarding how race and culture need to be dealt with in schools. Here are some of their comments:
    1. “I think it’s more important for students to have teachers of color at younger ages.”“Our children need to be exposed to diversity across the board.”
    2. “All teachers need empathy. If they don’t have it, then the school leaders have to train it.”
    3. “As a parent, I try to open my children up to other cultures and communities.”
    4. “Knowledge of self, who I am, is the key. We should try to provide equity. This means we should not only teach Eurocentric American History— ‘His Story’—but we must also teach and share our story, too.”
    5. “Schools do not fully recognize the need for all children to learn about the Black experience in this country. It should be integrated into the curriculum. There should be questions about it on the Regents. It starts at the top with the policy makers.”
    6. “Black history should not only be taught in Black schools, but all schools”
    7. “As long as there is respect for our children, and we have access to what is happening in the schools, and there is accountability, then the teachers’ color is of no concern.”
    8. “We need to add a course about the African diaspora from Africa through the Caribbean and into America.”
    9. “Students learn about the ‘dust bowl’ experience of the 1930’s by reading ‘Of Mice and Men’. Why don’t they read literature that tells about the Black experience of that era as well?  We need to get out of the box, and it starts with vision at the top. As for the future of this district, we need the continuity of good leadership.”
  5.   SETTING HIGH EXPECTATIONS–The principal presents a fatherly figure. He can be both stern and caring at the same time. His long and successful experience have earned him a deep respect by his faculty. He exudes a practical wisdom. Students and teachers cite his often-said motto: “School is a dignified place”. When students are asked what that means to them, they say: “It means that school is a workplace—it’s a serious place to learn”. “You don’t have to worry about anything that’s taking place outside of school”. “It’s all about learning”. “You just gave to keep your mind on your goals and what you want to accomplish.” When teachers were asked the same question, they said, “It speaks to our culture. That there is a structure here where students come ready to learn”. “It’s a mindset that the school is a safe haven. What goes on in here is different from what happens to them outside of school.”

6. THE PAST IS NOT AN EXCUSE—Over the last decade, this school has gone through a seismic shift from a suburban to an urban-suburban school. The principal recognized the necessity to shift the culture of the school.  It meant that the teachers would have to make fundamental changes regarding their teaching styles and how they related to this evolving student demographic. “Previously, teachers tended to react punitively to students’ non-compliance, without explanations; to be confrontational”, the principal explained. The principal grasped the need for the faculty to be more tolerant by demonstrating respect for students. “Teachers needed to learn to say, ‘please, and thank you.  They needed to stop directing sarcasm to students. It starts with their language, and it had to change.” In addition, the principal instilled a culture of high expectations for scholarship and behavior, accompanied by the necessary support to fulfill those expectations. In order to support teachers in their mission to have students attain high expectations, the principal created policies to remove all impediments to teaching and learning. Specifically, teachers are not expected to stand corridor duty between periods. Administration and security take care of those duties, including enforcing that students exhibit their identification badges. “There needs to be fewer opportunities for confrontations”, according to the principal. What might be perceived as a contradiction, nevertheless, the principal insists that school rules (no hats; no ear plugs; zero tolerance for violence, drugs, bullying, and insubordination) be rigorously enforced. He feels that this is his way of demonstrating support for teachers, and that is maintaining control of the building, and focusing teachers’ energy on teaching and learning.

These are just a few experiences I witnessed. I believe they get to the core of what needs to be done in all schools. This requires strong visionary leadership, persistence and patience. Are these common experiences in your school? How does your school compare to what I have described? And yes, the mold, the stereotype, it can be broken. Why can I say that, because it has been broken.

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