In 2006, Tim King opened the first Urban College Prep, a charter school for young black men in Englewood. Speaking to a group of educators, he recalled arriving at a student’s house to drive him to college, only to see the young man walking out of the house with a trash bag.
King, who now oversees three all-boys campuses, says he urged the student to hurry, mistakenly thinking he’d caught him trying to finish a chore. Instead, the trash bag contained the young man’s clothes and belongings. King, who is black, said the moment made him check his own bias, recalling his startling realization as he contrasted his student with himself: “I took my things to college in a suitcase.”
Such anecdotes animated a day devoted to teaching educators about harnessing technology to personalize learning, in sessions offered Tuesday at the Leap InnovatEd Summit at the Hyatt McCormick Place. Getting to know learners beyond their surface-level classroom work is a key part of reaching students at every level, said Phyllis Lockett, the founder and CEO of Leap Innovations, the group behind the summit. “We call it being ‘learner focused’ — developing a deep understanding of each learner’s life, challenges and interests,” she said.
But it was reflections like King’s that struck chords that resonated with participants, on the importance of equity in their work. King’s panel — on how educators can improve the odds for black boys — drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Their interest was driven by stark realities. Black boys are more likely than any other group to drop out of high school in Chicago. Fewer than 10 percent of those who do graduate are projected to earn a bachelor’s degree in any given cohort, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
While many of the Tuesday’s sessions were designed to help teachers rely more on technology to identify learning gaps, differentiate instruction, and “meet students where they are,” King and co-panelists skipped computers and instead stressed the value of “warm and demanding” educators. They also warned of downsides of new Chicago Public Schools policies that, for example, inhibit communicating with students by banning text- or social media interactions between them and staff.
“I know we have some people out there who have been doing really bad things,” said King, referring to a sexual misconduct scandal that has been roiling the district, “but there are kids who don’t have anywhere to go or need someone to talk to, via Twitter, Facebook, via text messaging. CPS has created a policy that says we cannot engage and interact with students where they are. I think that is a mistake.”
The panel also included Shayne Evans, a former principal who is managing partner of the Academy Group, and Phillip Cusic, the program director of Becoming A Man, or BAM, a mentoring program active in more than 100 Chicago schools. Nicole Beechum from the University of Chicago moderated.
“I was the kid with the garbage bag,” said Cusic, who grew up one of 11 children on Chicago’s South Side. “But we can get to a certain point in life and we forget the stuff we’ve gone through — it’s almost like a psychic break.” Recognizing the privilege of many of the adults, even black ones, who work in schools is a crucial step.
So is the realization, he added, that “social emotional learning isn’t just for children.”
Educators have to recognize their own microagressions and control how they respond when teenagers argue or show attitude. No one is immune to having a bad day, and teachers are saddled by issues that make them too quick to react. “We all have to step back and think about our collective responsibility to make ourselves whole,” said Cusic.
Another suggestion: Giving students case studies grounded in the experiences of leaders who look like them so students see a possible future path. He said his program recently gave some 11th graders a set of Harvard business case studies written by an African-American prof. “Our students crushed those.”
And it was Evans who set the expectations that educators be “warm and demanding.” School leaders should be able to “create spaces where black men can be vulnerable,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything despite what our budgets may say.”
Shenann Finley-Jones, assistant principal of Brunson Math & Science Specialty School, a predominantly black and low-income school in Austin, said after the discussion that her school has embraced ways to help students with their physical needs and their emotional ones. Breakfast hours have been extended for students who show up hungry, and an empty classroom has been transformed into a hygiene closet where students in need can go for deodorant or other personal supplies.
Brunson is now holding “morning meetings” in classrooms where teachers take the emotional temperature of their students and discuss any issues popping up in class. This year, they’ll also experiment with a Staff Time Out, or STO, that sends an administrator to relieve a teacher feeling besieged until a situation de-escalates.
“Teachers are trained to have to teach no matter what, but sometimes you’re thinking, Why can’t I get past this point? Why can’t I get past this issue right now?” Brunson asked. “Let’s stop and address this issue.”
Her principal, Carol Wilson, said she’s not concerned that the district’s new social media restrictions will dampen staff-student interactions. She said the morning meetings have helped train kids to talk about what’s bothering them. They also use Google Hangouts to facilitate group interactions and support — since there are multiple students in a “hangout,” this use of technology doesn’t appear to violate the district’s new code.