In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve is joined by the founder & superintendent of ACCEL Day & Evening Academy, Dr. Jeremiah Newell, to look at tapping into success for disconnected young people.
Get in touch with Dr. Newell: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:53 Tapping into success for disconnected young people today on the podcast we’re joined by Jeremiah Newell, the founder and superintendent of ACCEL Day & Evening Academy. It’s a tuition free public charter school, serving high school students in grades 9-12 in Mobile, Alabama. So, welcome Jeremiah.
Jeremiah: 01:16 Well, hello. Thanks for having me.
Steve: 01:19 Jeremiah, how about if you start by giving us a little bit of a background that led to the founding of the school and maybe a little bit about the school and your student makeup.
Jeremiah: 01:32 I’d be glad to. Our school, we call it ACCEL Academy for short, was founded, birthed out of the community. For the last 30 years as a community of leaders, an organization called the Mobile Education Foundation has been supporting our public schools to improve. As many know, Alabama is on the bottom of lists on educational rankings and has been for a long time. And so we felt a real urgency to do a couple of things. First, to really push the envelope on a how schooling works in our community, ask new questions about the structure of schooling and the way kids experience learning. We also felt it important to not just focus on students who were on track or, you know, kind of doing the right thing and pushing them even further, but to really recognize that there are many young people for whom the existing systems are not serving them. And giving those parameters, we really work to design our school as a local community, engaging with national partners and we were proud to be approved to be the first charter school in the state of Alabama.
Steve: 02:42 When you and I had a chance to speak earlier and I was asking you about the school, you kind of laid out four foundational components, and I’m wondering if you could kind of walk us through the role that those four elements play in your success with disconnected students?
Jeremiah: 03:01 I’d be glad to. First, just to kind of take a step back and just define what we mean by disconnected. So by disconnected, we mean young people who, if you’ve seen the movie Ferris Bueller, which most of us have in the world, it’s those kids who are in a classroom, but are just bored out of their minds. They’re not following what’s happening. They’re not finding it interesting, engaging, meaningful, and thus aren’t working anywhere near their potential. It’s also young people who have fallen behind academically. They’re losing credits in the high school level and aren’t on track to graduate or facing social, emotional family issues. And then there are students who have left the system altogether, given up on traditional schooling and need, want to move forward and reengage. So we think about all three of those young people when we think about the design of our school.
Jeremiah: 03:59 And so the four elements that undergird our work first starts with belief. And you know, we can’t understate that. So when I’m hiring teachers and counselors and support team, it starts with a belief in looking for individuals who are wanting to serve disconnected young people who believe in the innate capacity of people to learn to better themselves, to grow beyond their past history and to become something even greater. And this belief in the potential of people. And that has been so important for us as a school, to find individuals who have that capacity, that belief in the capacity of young people. And that belief really translates to us being able to restart with kids. Because 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 there because you’re excited about them learning. And those are very different situations. So that’s the first pillar. Is there a belief that all kids, but especially those who’ve fallen behind can and should, and will be able to maximize their potential.
Steve: 05:21 I frequently talk about great educators being optimists. And I describe it as they have a picture of a future for kids that there’s not a background to support. It’s really different to to look at everything that a kid has going for him and everything he’s done and begin to picture where they could go. But I see the great teacher as having holding that belief when the kid doesn’t have anything he or she can point to it and the teacher doesn’t actually waste their time looking for it. They know that it’s there and planning and move ahead from that.
Jeremiah: 06:04 Yeah, definitely. The second one for us that builds from belief, is then the ability to engage and motivate. So we have to acknowledge that our children have been in classroom after classroom that felt the same, felt, you know, uninteresting and just not what they want in learning. And so 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 have to be skilled at being able to connect the learning in a way that helps them to see the purpose of it. And so what that looks like often are introductory, when units are starting, we’re doing hooks for them where they’re doing some hands on connections, or they’re exploring this particular content as it relates to current events so they can see.
Jeremiah: 07:02 So I’ll give a prime example of if we were in history class right now. Given the things that are happening in the world around social justice and social protest, even if we were looking at the history of the American revolution, we would be starting by saying, where do you see these these actions of revolutionary men and women? How does that play into what’s happening right now, right? So it’s those abilities to try to center young people in the learning in a way that helps them see the purpose of it. And so our teachers do a really good job of beginning there because once they’re interested, then we can begin to help them push themselves to do the hard work of mastering the academic skills.
Steve: 07:51 It’s interesting that you use that term hard work. Kind of the key in my head is learning is hard work that feels good.
Jeremiah: 08:01 Right. Yes.
Steve: 08:02 I’ve give it a label, what that feel good part is. It can be struggling with a complicated math problem, or it can be diveing deep into wanting to understand why things are the way they are or how I can bring about change. And it’s hard work, but it’s a very difference between hard work that feels good versus hard work that’s just exhausting because I don’t have that piece to point to that.
Jeremiah: 08:33 And for disconnected youth, it’s so important because they’ve experienced the hard work.That’s partly why they’re
disconnected. They know it’s 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. And so the question is, so why? Why try? And so that second pillar for us is we have to make those hooks in those connections and that engagement because it allows them to get back at it day after day.
Steve: 09:04 How about the next point?
Jeremiah: 09:07 So then it becomes breaking down the learning in a way that the hard work is manageable and purposeful. So teaching has to be intentional. And we think about our instruction and our teachers as instructional designers. And so the third pillar is really about designing instruction that isn’t informed about where students are and clearly aligned to where students need to get to.
Jeremiah: 09:36 And so there are a couple of components that instructional design. The first is around backwards planning. We spent a lot of time on highlighting, what are the focus – where are we trying to get to with learning? What are the focused and enduring understandings that we want to help young people to get to in terms of skills? And then from that backwards planning process, have clear data checks so that we formatively are understanding where our students along that trajectory. And then the second element of it is differentiation. We know kids are going to come at different places in this experience around that learning journey. And that’s so true for disconnected youth. Because often, they 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.
Jeremiah: 10:34 And so differentiation is so important. When you come into our classrooms, you’ll see where our teachers have reorganized the classrooms so that small groupings are happening throughout the courses and the particular units that are aligned to where students are. And so sometimes those groups are same level. Sometimes those groups are higher and lower together. It depends, depending on what we’re trying to get done at that particular part of the unit. And that happens unit after unit. So teacher as instructional designer. And then the last component of that design is student agency. So you have to bring that hook of relevancy through it. And so there’s elements of student choice around how they demonstrate mastery in their particular units that help them help us to see that they’re there, but also helps them to see that they’re doing something that feels purposeful and that they’re not just having to sit here and the teacher’s already decided everything that’s going to happen and you’re just, you know, sitting on the – riding on the bus while the teacher is driving so to speak.
Steve: 11:33 Am I hearing student goal-setting as an element of what you’re describing?
Jeremiah: 11:44 You are hearing that. So while we as instructional designers certainly have to be masters of our content and know what
mastery looks like, we have to bring the student along in that journey. And that’s where that goal setting comes in, where they’re able to articulate what they’re learning. They’re able to articulate how the things they’re doing within that unit or within that lesson is driving them to the goals that they want. And so we use competencies to help to do that so that they can see their development over time.
Steve: 12:14 They see the payoff for the hard work, which becomes part of making it feel good.
Jeremiah: 12:20 Yes. I was in a check in with one of my teachers yesterday and she was talking about how at the beginning of the year, students are often, you know – it’s really, it’s a challenge to bring them along because they’re not used to working so hard, but by the time – midway through the semester, they’re talking about how. this is easy. And it’s not because it’s easy. It’s because they’ve now begun to understand how to do the hard work and they’re doing it around things that are meaningful to them. And I mean, I’m so proud of our teachers. We’re using NWEA data, we’re growing two and three years in a semester in some cases in their literacy and math skills. So some things are really working because of that design.
Steve: 13:08 The other phrase that’s going through my mind – 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, this teacher knows about you. The teacher knows about the goals that you’re working on, knows about the desires and dreams that you have. I’ve always – I’ve had this picture in my mind that in my ideal, kids would leave middle school, they’d leave eighth grade with a five year plan in their hands. So when they’d ask me why, I’d say, well, because you need to walk into high school and gonna meet a bunch of your freshmen teachers. And you want to go up to each freshman teacher and hand them your five year plan because the teacher is supposed to work for you. But they don’t know how to work for you if they don’t know where it is you’re going and what it is you want to do.
Jeremiah: 14:02 Exactly.
Steve: 14:02 So, you know, and I’d say to the teachers, you know, if we could make that happen, then as a teacher, a kid is slacking off or not doing well. And the teacher says to him, you know, I’d like to see after school today, but do me a favor and bring your five year plan. Because evidently, it looks like you’ve changed it and you didn’t tell me. I was giving you this assignment because I thought this plan you had was still important, but if you’re going a different direction, then let’s regroup. Critical message. And that really does for a lot of the disconnected kids, that’s part of the disconnect. I’m not seeing any reason for what it is I’m being asked to do here. So it doesn’t make any sense doing it for somebody else. And what we really gotta do is convince kids that you’re investing in yourself here. That’s what it’s about.
Jeremiah: 14:52 Yeah, that’s so true. And that also connects to that fourth element that really is foundational as well, to all the things we’re talking about, which is building relationships with young people. And we do that in a couple of ways, very intentionally. So before students even start with us, they’ve met with the administrative team, leaders in the building to get to know their story and what they want to do. And so when they’re coming in, we work to try to remember their names so that and usually about within the first week, even with the, you know, 100, 120 students, the administrative team generally has remembered every student name which is a difference because often they like to stay under the radar. And so they do something bad and then they’re in the principal’s office, so to speak – no, no, no. We’re going to start with, you’re an individual, you got hopes and aspirations that we believe in you.
Jeremiah: 15:45 And then the teachers do the same thing. So within that first week, knowing all of their students’ names in the class, in their classrooms, they’ve got sheets, we, you know, look at pictures. We do the work to make sure we’ve got that relationship with students beginning to build. We also have a student support structure that I think is really amazing. We use a primary person model for counseling, where we create much smaller case loads. And then we we’ve shifted from the role of guidance counselor to advocate counselor. And that person is doing therapy based work, social work, oftentimes home visits. And then they’re also helping them construct that plan. So we’re gonna assume you’ve come in with some goals, but they may not be as refined. So we’re going to help you along that way. They do it in small case loads so that students know they’ve got a primary person who knows a lot about their story and where they want to go that’s in the building and can act as an advocate between with their teachers and with administrators and even at home.
Jeremiah: 16:39 We find sometimes, that what children are wanting for their labs are not necessarily what parents are wanting for them. Or they’re having trouble communicating that they’ve changed and parents aren’t believing that. And so there’s this tension that show up in the home that we’re often sitting in and saying, let’s give him or her a try. Like, let’s look at these grades. They’re improving, behavior at school is improving and so it’s fascinating how important those relationships are. Because once those begins to build, the kids are going to work for themselves. And we’re going to be able to work for them and we come in and say, hey, we give that hard feedback that we need more, I need something different, they’re going to receive it because we’re their advocates. So that relationship component and creating intentional structures in the school for that to happen are really important reasons why we’ve seen so much student success.
Steve: 17:50 Well, Jeremiah, I really appreciate the time and the insights you shared here. I’m wondering – this question I’ve been asking quite a few people lately. As the COVID-19 crisis kind of put schools in a quick, hurry up and figure some things out kind of spot. And I’m convinced that this has to be a critical learning time for us. That a lot of reflection is necessary. So I’m wondering if you’ve got thoughts on strengths in your program that got reinforced for you because of this and maybe some light that got pointed in another direction, or a question that that you’re that you’re pondering as a school based on what you learned during this time.
Jeremiah: 18:27 Definitely. So as a school, as we’ve opened – we’re in now, wrapping up year three and beginning your four. One of the elements of our school was personalization. So we invested in laptops for one-to-one capabilities in our school and learning management systems and that sort of thing. One spotlight though that became clear when students were not in the building, is that one of the flipped nature of our classrooms. So the utilization of those learning management systems, you know, putting them on – putting learning in those systems had not been used to the level that it could and they weren’t as complex as they should be. There were gaps in it that teachers were they were controlling for in the classroom. So when students showed up, they were making those leaps and those moves, but they weren’t necessarily in the learning management systems, our Google classroom or in our and those kinds of things.
Jeremiah: 19:25 So students, if they were to follow directions and instructions from there, they couldn’t figure it out. So we had some work to do to really flesh out how we utilize our learning management systems in a way that students can kind of more effectively plug and play when an adult is not present to clarify for you in a synchronous way. But on the other side, one of the most important successes we had is a recognition that learning is communal work, which we know, and we’ve worked really hard to build community. So as a leadership team, we create an intentional structure. So that first community continued for teachers in terms of how they were learning, how they were being coached, how they were being supported to implement the COVID-19 moment of crisis that we were experiencing. And what we got from that is whereas other of their colleagues were saying, oh, this is – from other school, this is horrible. We can’t do this. This is crazy.
Jeremiah: 20:27 The words that we got from our evaluations of the process were, this was reinvigorating, this was inspiring. I felt supported. And it’s because we took the systems and structures that were happening in person, from a leadership level of school coaching level, or school support level, and we moved them to virtual, we moved them online. So staff had an opening every every week with clear goals of what everybody was going to be doing. We were celebrating each other’s successes and their classes. At the end of the week, we all huddled virtually to look at those successes and shout out kids and shout out staff and preview – those senses of culture and community had to be moved online. And I think that’s a really important lesson for all schools, because I noticed from a lot of other schools, it’s like folks, when we couldn’t be around each other, what was special about the community began to dissolve. We didn’t see that happen for us because of those intentional structures. And students were better served. That same thing happened for kids too. We continued our counseling structures. If kids didn’t couldn’t get online, we, you know, we were doing it via phone. Going and finding them, whatever we needed to do to celebrate them so I think those lessons were really important for us.
Steve: 21:49 I find that really interesting because in some places, those things didn’t exist before, but they ended up existing as a way of surviving. Kind of, when people went into crisis mode. And I think for a lot of schools, the question we have to be asking ourselves is that was really important and are we going to hold onto it? So like, you know, I’m thinking about the communities where the teachers did a car parade around the community and stopped and waved at kids. We shouldn’t need a pandemic. It got the parents involved, it got the community involved. I think you’re right on. Either you had the community in place and it’s why you were strong and it supported you, or people saw the need for community in order to deal with it and now the question is, are they are they going to hang on to that? That’s a biggie.
Jeremiah: 22:48 That’s right. Andd you know, because schools are a reflection of the community, schools have to, we have to ask ourselves what are the rituals that we learned from through the pandemic that helped to reinforce a positive and supporting place and how can those rituals continue whether you’re in person every day or not? That’s the nature of how we engage with one another. And we have a sacred trust as educators to ensure that that environment is one that supports not just the child, but the entire family. And so, we really were successful in that area. And it does take the leadership of the school being aligned about how to do that and intentional about how to do that. Teachers are going to come up with great ideas, but they can’t be sustained if they’re not structures built by the leadership team of the school to ensure that can happnen.
Steve: 23:44 Well I really, really appreciate this. So if it’s okay with you, we’ll stick the link to your school and your email into the lead-in
to this podcast so that folks can can track you down and follow up with you.
Jeremiah: 24:00 Sure. I’d love to continue to share and learn from them as well. Thank you for making this opportunity possible, Steve.
Steve: 24:06 You’re very, very welcome.
Steve [Outro]: 24:08 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.