Why Schools Need to Change
Why Schools Need to Change

Today’s learners face an uncertain present and a rapidly changing future that demand far different skills and knowledge than were needed in the 20th century. We also know so much more about enabling deep, powerful learning than we ever did before. Our collective future depends on how well young people prepare for the challenges and opportunities of 21st-century life.

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Achievement First Greenfield’s team is finding ways to seamlessly integrate enrichment, personalized learning, and self-reflection throughout the school day.

Every day on Achievement First Greenfield’s team is a new adventure. We’re launching a new model for education. We’re finding out how to seamlessly integrate enrichment, personalized learning, and self-reflection into the rigorous small group and whole group classes throughout our school day. Each day, we’re iterating upon and learning so many new and exciting ways to unlock the potential inside each of our scholars so that we can move the needle further and faster for them.

But out of everything, do you want to know about the learning I’m most excited to share? Of course you do! It’s the bet we’re making on student investment. This is more than student engagement in core content and enrichments, more than student agency, more than building life habits and strength of character—this is all of those things plus an additional focus on the development of that underlying, lifelong drive toward pursuing true passion and purpose that will fuel our students’ bright future.

During Goal Team time—particularly Compass Circles (adopted from Valor Collegiate), an important part of our model enables our kids to push past self-limiting doubts—students explore their evolving identities, and develop their core values. Because of this, we now know how to identify and address where they are in ways we never would have before.

Every day, I watch a ton of kids benefit from this approach. Probably none more than one sixth-grade girl who I’ll call “Jaylen.” She’s really struggled to embrace her skills and her many gifts, and to socialize and connect with her peers. She was very shy to say the least. She did not struggle academically. She did not struggle behaviorally. But she did struggle to feel empowered to show up each day as her most confident, best self.

I could see how gifted she is when I talked with her privately, or when I reviewed her writing, or when I heard her sing in a small group with our music teacher. She had so much more of herself to offer. And she didn’t embrace her greatness or her school experience in the ways she needed to in order to truly engage and persist over the long term.

Through this model and our focus on social-emotional learning, we are creating more opportunities for students to build their skills to become leaders, and to dive into exploring their strengths and talents as a way to strengthen their overall intrinsic motivation. Jaylen, like all of our students, meets weekly with her goal coach and team and then quarterly with her ‘Dream Team’ to set academic and passion goals.

To take it a step further, students like Jaylen also create concrete plans and anticipate obstacles that may get in the way, as well as brainstorm solutions to overcome those challenges that may arise. In small groups, our students participate in the ‘Compass Circles,’ where they’re given the space and support to share their feelings, build empathy for others, challenge them and grow as whole people. Instead of ‘report card nights,’ our scholars run their own Dream Team meetings with their families, teachers, and other key mentors, to share their progress and aspirations. As a result, we’re seeing students really begin to deepen their sense of ‘why,’ and use that as a sense of empowerment. Finally, we’re starting to see that transfer into really meaningful learning opportunities for our scholars.

I’ve watched Jaylen write, deliver and record a powerful poem about why black lives matter to her. Often, she’ll get up in front of the whole school and sing the “Elm City Anthem.” She’ll advocate for changing school culture practices she’d like to see amended, build strong and thoughtful arguments, and present them to our principal. And I am also watching her acquire a strong and powerful sense of identity.

In the past, it could have been easy to “miss” a student like Jaylen—a kid who does well enoughboth in the classroom and with her behavior. That doesn’t happen here in the way it may have in the past. This model sets the stage so that educators can truly know their students, and inherently provides us stronger clarity about how to best support scholars so they can succeed in all parts of their learning experience. This valuable information would not have shown up on a traditional data sheet. Without it, we wouldn’t have known where to start.

When my team reviews student investment data, we break down how much our kids really love school. How independent do they feel? Do they have the tools to persist through really challenging times? Are they doing the goal setting and establishing the life habits they need to further develop their strength of character? We’re finding out that we have to make an even stronger bet on our scholars in this area.

As educators, it’s always an instinct to rely on what has previously been narrowly defined as education—the training, reviewing student work, the development. But what we are learning now is that we have to be even more intentional about equipping our scholars for success in a more holistic way, even at the youngest ages. Right now, roughly 50 percent of our alumni are persisting through college. While that is unacceptable, it’s also well above the national average for Black, Latino and low-income students. Clearly, there is much work for schools everywhere to do.

That’s why when we looked at our hard data, it really confirmed for us, we can’t just create the structure for student investment, and sit back and watch it happen. We have to make sure we provide intensive development for teachers so that they can intentionally build human capacity and help scholars develop a sense of identity and character.

What does this mean for us as educators? It means we are challenged in new ways. We have to be even more fired up than we’ve ever been to provide our students with the skills they need to persist in college.

What does that mean to us as educators? For me, it is a confirmation of why I came into this work. I believe education is the equalizer. The resources I had, the mentors I encountered, all of the intangible things that have actually prepared me for what I am doing—those are the things that have for so long been missing from schools.

The best schools know how to nail the academic portion of the experience. I am proud to be part of a network that is committed to equally emphasizing the importance of building intrinsic motivation, and to helping scholars identify what they believe in and deepen their “why.” That’s how they will truly maximize their potential and win their futures.

Guest Blogger graphic

Ashia Parks

Dean of Students, Elm City College Prep Elementary

Ashia Parks is the dean of students at Achievement First’s flagship Greenfield school, Elm City College Prep Elementary. In the fall, she will become principal of the network’s first Greenfield school in Rhode Island: Achievement First Providence Mayoral Academy Middle.