By Brooke Haycock
Illustrations by Sela Lewis
“In the garden there was nothing which was not quite like themselves — nothing which did not understand the wonderfulness of what was happening to them.”
― The Secret Garden
Each year, in alarming numbers, and with alarming predictability, they leave. Some, swept out in a cloud of dust and suspension records. Some, fall out through the loose weave of the safety nets educators hoped would hold them. Others exit on their own, seeing more opportunities outside the school walls than within.
And in their wake, schools try to make sense of all the reasons they are gone. Too often, these explanations gloss over the powerful roles educators play in connecting students to school and instead fall squarely on the shoulders of the students themselves. They just didn’t do what they were supposed to. They just wouldn’t follow the rules. They just didn’t take responsibility and ask for help. They just had too much going on outside school — too much trauma, too much drama, and too little outside support. And perhaps the most devastating explanation: They just didn’t care.
But, as was clear in the story of Cornelius, featured in the last edition of Echoes From the Gap, student pathways to disengagement are paved with moments ripe for educator and school intervention. And where the previous installation of the series highlighted these missed opportunities, this edition seeks to surface lessons from re-engaged students and from schools and educators working to organize themselves in ways to draw students into school — and to get them on a path to success.
Like Cornelius, the young people you are about to meet — identified by pseudonyms they chose for themselves — are not the kinds of students generally looked to for answers on how to improve schools. Too often, they are cast as the very problems. The data points that drag schools down, the disciplinary actions, the truancy numbers, the failure rates, the call-outs, the walk-outs, the kick-outs.
These students are telling us in every way they know how that our schools are not working for them. And they are exactly the young people from whom we need to be seeking advice about how to draw them back in.
Similarly, the schools I met them in, which also remain unidentified to protect student privacy, are not the kinds that districts and traditional schools generally look to for exemplar practices. These are the schools of second chance: an alternative school, a comprehensive GED program, and a high school in a secure juvenile detention facility.
Their achievement and attainment data, while on the rise, are not topping the charts. But they are evolving, responding, and organizing themselves in ways that are re-engaging concentrations of struggling students, accelerating learning, and growing students’ notions of who and what they can be in ways that many traditional schools have failed to do with far fewer struggling students.
Lessons emerging from students and educators in schools like these have much to contribute to the conversation about how to support and meaningfully engage students, and to provide students — particularly those struggling in our current schools — what they need to take flight.
Welcome to the Butterfly Gardens …
It’s late spring and Kamari is at the school with her daughter filling out graduation forms.
“It just feels really good. It’s one of my biggest accomplishments. It makes me feel like I’m responsible. Because not only did I do this for myself, I pressed my way for my daughter as well. It made me feel like, if I can achieve this, I can encourage another youth to achieve. No matter your trials or obstacles or tribulations. No matter what you went through. Everybody got a story to tell. It’s never too late.”
“I feel highly engaged.” There was not a note of hesitation in Goldie’s voice. “Because I have a goal I need to reach. Honestly, I have a fear of failure. I can’t be a nothing. I can’t see myself outside asking people for change to go back and forth to places I don’t even need to be going. I should be able to do for myself. I need to do what I gotta do. To do better. When I’m done with the program, I’m gonna get into the fire science program and I’m gonna become a firefighter. I’m gonna do it.”
Nearing the end of his sentence and taking senior classes, Noah has his sights on college. He reflects on the changes he’s made and how he feels about his education. “Before I got locked up, I was going to school, but I wasn’t engaged; I wasn’t motivated. I just wanted the credit so I could say I had a high school diploma. But, here, I found there’s more that I can do than just getting a diploma. I could get a trade, I could go to a two-year or I could go to a four-year college. It’s more important. It just makes me motivated to do something better than just my high school diploma.”
Lebron will graduate next winter, and he too is looking toward college, a place he once thought he had no chance of reaching. “I’m probably going to graduate in January. I only got to take three more classes. I’m excited. I wish it was this year, but it’s alright. I’m gonna get into IT, computer security or something like that. I want to go to Maryland, because they’re the best in the nation.”
Ready to graduate, John James beams when he talks about all he’s accomplished. “Each year, I found my own ambition. I think even all the doubts in my family motivated me. But, like, every teacher I had, they knew I wanted to graduate. Once I did all that — well, I’m here now, so … June 16th.” Smiling, his voice trails off and he looks at the college acceptance letter in his hand.
We hope “Catching Butterflies” can be a resource for leaders to spark conversations in schools and districts about interventions and supports for struggling students. Below are some guiding questions you can tailor to help drive those conversations.
What were some of the themes you heard from students on what helped them reconnect to school, to educators, and to their futures?
What were the adult philosophies about students that governed their approach and practices? What were adult philosophies about their role in re-engaging students and accelerating learning?
What adult philosophies govern the approach and practices with struggling students in your school? Are those philosophies shared or do they vary across the school? How would you compare those with what you read in “Catching Butterflies”?
In your school, how are struggling students identified and supported? When does your school intervene and how? Are those practices consistent across the school, or are they isolated in classrooms? What practices seem to be working, and which might need to be re-examined and strengthened — and how do you know?
What opportunities exist in your school to hear from struggling students about barriers they’re experiencing and what they think would help them? Are there ways to further capitalize on those opportunities and respond to student feedback? And how can hearing from students translate into adult action?
What are the communication and collaboration channels in your district between comprehensive schools and alternative schools or programs? To what degree are educators in these different settings sharing practices and strategies? To what degree are schools working together to support students as they go back and forth across settings?
From Ed Trust:
As always, we are grateful for any feedback from you. We’d like to know how useful you find the series, how you’ve used it, and how we can make it more useful. Email Brooke at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re in search of more student stories, check out Brooke’s Between the Echoes blog series on The Equity Line. And if you’re interested in student stories live and off the page, learn about Ed Trust docudramas,based entirely on interviews with students and educators.
About This Series
Written by playwright-researcher Brooke Haycock, this Ed Trust series, Echoes From the Gap, puts front and center the stories of students. These are the young people behind the numbers we look at in our districts, offices, and states, those whose lives are deeply affected by — even determined by — their educational experiences.
We share their stories with respect for their privacy, by changing names and omitting details of place when appropriate. And, with respect for their words, whenever possible, we let those words speak for themselves. We do, though, attempt to zoom out from individual student experience to students generally, integrating existing national data to draw larger connections to key issues educators and advocates grapple with as they work to improve schools.