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Educators share ideas for making school more welcoming

Principals and teachers agree that student engagement depends on relationships and rigorous instruction.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

High school needs to be fun and welcoming, a place where students feel valued by caring adults and engaged by interesting coursework that they can see will prepare them for a future.

But, too often, high schools – especially large, neighborhood institutions – can be places where students get lost, ignored, and bored.

“I really think that a lot of times schools have become more like penal colonies,” said Linda Carroll, principal of 3,000-student Northeast High School. “So I think we have to do some work around that – making schools inviting for kids.”

For this edition on student engagement, the Notebook convened a group of six educators from three of the city’s neighborhood high schools that have had relative success in maintaining attendance and graduation rates. They had a 90-minute dialogue on what they do to keep students in school.

They are Carroll and Elizabeth Fernandez-Vina, a teacher leader at Northeast; principal Dana Jenkins and lead teacher Christine Arnold from Roxborough; and principal Sharif El-Mekki and literature teacher Ellen Speake from Mastery’s Shoemaker campus in West Philadelphia.

(Photo: Harvey Finkle)

Some themes emerged: building relationships, celebrating success, and making instruction rigorous and relevant to the students’ lives. There was no disagreement that this is what students need.

But they also painted a picture of harried, overworked adults in a much pared-down school system trying their best to cope and avoid burnout – a situation that they hope will not become the “new normal.”

Even if conditions were ideal, educators must do everything so students know it’s “your school, not our school,” said Jenkins.

It helps to have someone greet them at the door, a place to go if they arrive early, a place to eat if they don’t feel comfortable in the cafeteria. And they need extracurricular activities – which, unfortunately, can be lacking in these schools due to scarce resources, Jenkins said. There is no money to pay teachers to stay after school to sponsor clubs, although some do it anyway.

“It’s not just what happens in the classroom but beyond the classroom,” said Fernandez-Vina. “The more we can do that … the more we can bring kids into schools.”

Northeast continues to have many afterschool activities beyond sports, but it, too, has struggled. Its renowned aerospace program called SPARC had to be rescued by private donors this year.

But it is also necessary, she said, for teachers and other adults in the building to know students’ stories.

Fernandez-Vina said that on the way to the roundtable she saw some Northeast students who were on their way to work. After talking with one girl, she found out that the student didn’t get off work until 7:30, had homework to do afterward, and didn’t get to bed until 1 a.m.

“They’re at school at 7 … [so] we need to think about where they’re coming from, their home lives, and their other responsibilities” besides academics.

Most of the staffing provided to schools to deal specifically with tracking students down has been dismantled, the educators said. Mastery Shoemaker has a part-time attendance coordinator and a social worker, El-Mekki said.

At all the schools, teachers meet regularly in groups, often during common prep periods or through grade-level teacher teams, to discuss students and keep after them.

“It’s a team effort in getting kids to school and keeping them there,” said El-Mekki.

“We’re in constant communication. And I think what’s most important is those kids that struggle with attendance, the days that they’re there, they’re incredibly valued. It’s making the point that those students should feel like this is a place they should want to come and we want them there and even if their attendance may be inconsistent, it’s still a place where they belong.”

At Shoemaker, they borrow techniques from popular TV shows. After a certain number of absences or latenesses, El-Mekki said, you’re “off the island. And it generated a buzz, like, ‘I’m not gonna be off the island.’ It’s that kind of creativity I think is important.”

Teachers go so far as to text students in the morning.

Shoemaker and some District schools also have partnerships with groups like City Year, specifically to engage students who may be at risk of dropping out.

But it still is often not enough.

“We had a process to get [students] there,” Carroll said, “but we didn’t have interventions. There was no follow thorough because we have kids who have a myriad of issues.”

She said the schools don’t do a good enough job “at addressing some of the reasons why kids are not coming to school [but] we just don’t have the resources.”

At Roxborough, with just one secretary and one counselor for nearly 700 students, “the teachers have to do a lot of the counseling,” said Arnold.

Jenkins said that the school has now divided into four academies “so kids share common teachers, and they have those teachers the whole time.

“Everything goes back to relationships,” Jenkins added. “You can’t survive if you don’t do that with your children, your families, your partners, the teachers. Children won’t even let you help them if they don’t believe you really like them.”

Arnold also emphasized the power of positive feedback.

“We have a dean who is tough, no nonsense. She could lay them out, but they absolutely love her. [That’s because] she will find that kid and say, ‘I heard you did something great,’ which you don’t get all the time. And she has great relationships with the parents, so that helps a lot, too.”

But besides relationships, there is also the matter of making the academics interesting.

“Bottom line, kids want to be successful. They have this inherent desire to succeed, whether they show it or not,” Speake said.

“The difference between a kid who wants to come to school and a kid who is just coming to school to be compliant is this idea of kids seeing themselves as discoverers and as teachers.”

This year, Speake said engagement in her classes has increased because she has tried to “let kids discover things on their own. … It frustrates them sometimes because they want to know the right answers, but when they find it out on their own it is so much greater. … It’s not just someone at the front of the classroom delivering material. It’s really digging into it themselves and discovering things and challenging each other.”

Encouraging this kind of teaching is not easy. It has to be part of the school culture, said Carroll. “It takes years to make a school move in that way.”

It helps if the students know that the adults in the school respect each other. “Everybody in our building is a leader … has the ability to create, [and] has value, so that’s what helps us move a school,” Carroll said.

Each of Roxborough’s academies has a theme and practical courses, Jenkins said. Students need to understand the relevance of what they are learning in English, math, and the other core subjects.

One of the career pathways is cinematography, and students make videos and public service announcements. They realize the importance of English classes as they write scripts and of math as they prepare different angles for shots.

All the educators said that in this era of cuts and instability, their jobs have become more difficult, as they not only work hard to do everything, but also put on a brave face for students and minimize the disruption as much as possible.

Carroll and El-Mekki sparred a bit over whether they should motivate students to fight for social justice, or shield them from the reality that the larger society has concluded they are not worth the investment.

Carroll said that she goes out of her way to make things happen for students. For example, there will be a school musical this year, “The Wizard of Oz,” although she is still working on how the costs will be covered.

“I don’t want them to ever make the connection that [this society doesn’t] invest in their children,” she said. “So I have to invest in them constantly. Every single day I’ll do whatever I have to so that our school will continue to thrive.”

El-Mekki said that he sees an opportunity to engage students more fully by awakening them to what he called the “oppression” of the current situation. “Part of our job is to really help communities galvanize and demand things like a fair [education] funding formula.”

“We’re also pulling the curtain back and saying, ‘You deserve more. We’re going to help you demand more.’”

But the real life lesson, Speake said, is that “If you want something, work for it.”

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