Connecting the Disconnected with Dr. Jeremiah Newell Steve Barkley

Connecting the Disconnected

I had the opportunity to record a podcast with Dr. Jeremiah Newell, the founder & superintendent of ACCEL Day & Evening Academy in Mobile, Alabama. ACCEL is a tuition free public charter high-school (9-12) with a college preparatory curriculum and supportive environment designed to allow students to graduate early or to catch-up if they have fallen behind or dropped out of other schools.

ACCEL has a focus on Students Come First: “We respect our students and understand that each of them has individual wants and needs. We believe that learning can only be fostered from a feeling of mutual respect, guidance, and direction, and we do our very best to maintain those values in everything we do. Our unique teaching approach supplies our students with the proper support system that will lead them down the path to success.”

Dr. Newell shared four core components that undergird the success that ACELL has in connecting with disconnected students and building successful futures. I think that his components are ones for all schools to be considering especially now among the unknowns of the current school year plans.

#1 – Beliefs


Jeremiah: When I’m hiring teachers, counselors and support team members, I am looking for individuals who are wanting to serve disconnected young people and who believe in the innate capacity of people to learn to better themselves, to grow beyond their past history and to become something greater. This is a belief in the potential of people. It is important for us to find individuals who have that belief in the capacity of young people. That belief translates to us being able to restart with kids.

What’s interesting about young people is they can size you up pretty quickly and can determine whether you’re here because you’re excited about learning or are you here because you’re excited about them learning. Those are very different situations. So that’s the first pillar. Is there a belief that all kids, but especially those who have fallen behind can and should, and will be able to maximize their potential?

Steve: I describe those teachers as being optimist. They have a picture of a future for a student when there is no current data to support that picture.

#2 – Engage and Motivate

Jeremiah: The second pillar that builds from belief, is the ability to engage and motivate. We must acknowledge that our children have been in classroom after classroom that felt uninteresting and just not what they want in learning. There’s nothing that’s going to change about that reality when they first enter our classrooms. They’re going to see it as the same even if we say it’s different. So, our teachers must be skilled at being able to connect the learning in a way that helps them to see the purpose of it. What that looks like often are introductions to units with hooks. Students are doing hands on connections, or they’re exploring this particular content as it relates to current events. As an example, if we were in history class right now exploring the American Revolution, with things that are happening in the world, social justice and social protest, we would be starting by saying, where do you see these current actions in revolutionary men and women? How does that play into what’s happening right now? We try to center young people in the learning in a way that helps them see the purpose of it. Our teachers do a really good job of beginning there because once students are interested, we can begin to help them push themselves to do the hard work of mastering the academic skills.

Steve: The hard work of learning can feel good. It can be struggling with a complicated math problem, or diving deep into wanting to understand why things are the way they are, or how I can bring about change. That’s hard work. But there is a difference between hard work that feels good versus hard work that’s just exhausting because I don’t see the value in the outcome.

Jeremiah: And for disconnected youth, it’s so important because they’ve experienced what they saw as hard meaningless work. That’s partly why they’re disconnected. They know it is hard work, but it has been hard work that has not felt good. It’s not felt good with their peers. It’s not felt good with their teachers. So, the question is, why? Why try? Building connections that engage students allows them to get back at it day after day.

#3 – Instructional Design

PlanJeremiah: Breaking down learning in a way that the hard work is manageable and purposeful is an intentional aspect of teaching. We think about our teachers as instructional designers. Designing instruction that is informed by where students are and clearly aligned to where students need to get to.

Jeremiah: There are a couple of components in instructional design. The first is around backwards planning. We have spent a lot of time highlighting where are we trying to get to with learning? What are the focused and enduring understandings that we want to help young people master in terms of skills? Then we have clear data checks so that we formatively are understanding where our students are along that trajectory. Differentiation is crucial as we know kids are going to come with different experiences in their learning journeys. This is especially true for disconnected youth because they often have a proclivity to certain subjects. So, they might be way ahead in math, for example, but further behind in their literacy skills or vice versa. Or they might be wonderful at science because they’ve just always loved it, but in other areas not so great. The last component is student agency which allows for the relevancy hook. Student choice around how they demonstrate mastery in their units helps them to see that they’re doing something that feels purposeful.

Steve: I frequently talk about being able to convince kids that the teachers work for them. It’s not about you going into this classroom to work for this teacher. The teacher knows about the goals that you are working on, knows about the desires and dreams that you have. I’ve had this picture in my mind that in my ideal, kids would leave middle school with a five-year plan in their hands. They would give freshman teachers a copy because the teacher is supposed to work for them. The teacher cannot work for the students if they don’t know where they are going.

Jeremiah: Exactly.

#4 – Relationships

Jeremiah: The fourth element is building relationships with young people. We do that very intentionally. Before students even start with us, they’ve met with the leadership team to get to know their story and what they want to do. We work to remember their names so that within the first week, the administrative team generally has remembered every student’s name. This is important because often they like to stay under the radar. We start with seeing each student as an individual with hopes and aspirations. We believe in you. Teachers do the same thing.

Jeremiah: We use a primary person model for counseling, where we create much smaller caseloads. We’ve shifted from the role of guidance counselor to advocate counselor. That person is doing therapy- based work, social work, oftentimes home visits. They help students construct a plan. Students know they’ve got a primary person who knows a lot about their story and where they want to go. Students know they have someone in the building who can act as an advocate with their teachers and with administrators and even at home.

Jeremiah: Creating intentional structures in the school for these four components to happen are important reasons why we’ve seen so much student success.


As many of you plan for a very different start of a new school year, consider the conversations that your leadership teams and staff should be having about beliefs, engagement, motivation, learning designs, and relationships.

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