I spent the morning working with educators from two school districts and with representatives of the Seneca Nation regarding drop out prevention. The group was formed after an initial meeting with school superintendents and Seneca Nation representatives about the consideration of an alternative school on the Cattaraugus territory. The intent was to provide another opportunity, another way for our Native American students who are not succeeding in our public schools.
I should mention that approximately 27% of our students are Native American and too many are lost to us before graduation. Not only is it of paramount interest to me as the principal, but also to our teachers, superintendent, BOE members, and community. It’s a fight we can’t afford to lose.
At the initial meeting, there were those of us who said, “Wait a minute”. Before we consider the evolution of an alternative setting, let’s talk about how we’re currently serving our students. Or more to the point, let’s talk about how we may be falling down. My hope would be that we could be that alternative school, that place where all students can find success. And before we look for another way, let’s make sure that we’re getting it right for as many students as possible.
This led us to the thought that we should form focus groups and listen to the students. While several studies have been conducted over the past ten years, not much ever seems to change as a result. What if we started to think differently? What if we ask our students questions directly about curriculum and instruction? Questions like what works for you in school; what is keeping you from doing well in class; which is the best way for you to learn; with which teachers do you do the best and what is it that they do that makes that happen; in what classes are you always willing to participate; what challenges you the most; what are the characteristics of the adults who matter most to you; do you feel emotionally safe in school–why or why not; what kinds of things would you like to do in the classroom?
So that’s how we’ll proceed. There are a lot of other details I haven’t mentioned like the group or individual interview formats chosen, the communication with parents and community members, the formulation of a meaningful action plan, and the students we’ll involve. But there’s something about the whole process that keeps playing over and over in my mind. They are all items that are within our realm of control and responsibility. I’m reminded again of the power of a teacher. The teacher is the variable in the classroom, he is the only person who can effectively change what happens based on what our students tell us. She has the incredible power to make a difference. If we only listen and endeavor to connect, to adapt and to constantly strive for engagement.
We acknowledge that there may be circumstances in students’ lives that are overwhelming to any school experience we may provide. We know some of our students have huge obstacles to overcome. We also know we employ some of the best teachers in the state. I hope they come back in September rejuvenated, hopeful, and willing to assume responsibility for instruction. When they come back, I’ll be hopeful that they’re willing to listen and that we can get past any ideas that it’s “these kids and we’re doing the best we can with them”, ideas which only deflect responsibility. Because while I acknowledge that some of the needs seem insurmountable at times, “these kids” are entrusted to us, they need education, and we’re what they’re given. They deserve everything we’ve got and more.