Building Hope for Equity This School Year

As a veteran teacher of thirty-three years working in a turnaround high school, I often think about the following quote from Hal Lindsey: “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.” Hope is critical as my colleagues and I strive to address the opportunity/achievement gap and meet the needs of students in our Title I school. With the start of a new school year, my hope for increased equity in my school and for my students is the strongest it’s ever been.

So, what’s different about this year? A lot. First, we have a new principal and a new administrative team to support his endeavors. This new administrator brings with him the confidence that we can and will accomplish our goals. Additionally, he brings an ability to motivate the staff to follow his lead.

Second, this administration has the necessary resources to facilitate the new vision and operation of turning our school around. Schools that are not meeting the state’s accountability expectations need additional supports, plus additional funding to implement them. It’s a significant investment, but ensuring our students can meet the state’s standards and be prepared to succeed in college and career is well worth it.

Third, the extensive redesign requires leadership to do things differently. Thinking differently requires a great number of new systems to be put into place to expedite success. This new vision, coupled with additional resources from our district, has granted us the ability to focus on five main strategies/plans to turn our school around: creating a freshman academy; mining data from the PSAT and SAT exams; restructuring professional development; contracting with an outside agency to help manage mental health/family challenges; and using more restorative practices.

The freshman academy inhabits a separate wing of the building so these students can have their own unique space, enabling them to make a smoother transition from middle school to high school without being overwhelmed. The freshman academy also has its own leadership team and smaller classes.

Highlighting fourteen academic points from the PSAT and SAT data gives us the ability to hone our lesson plans and be laser-focused on where our students need academic support. These points will also generate greater instructional fluency for all the staff.

Professional development restructuring entails looking to the staff to support each other. Our administration believes that our staff is a gold mine of instructional and classroom strategies. This approach allows teachers to feel valued for their expertise and to build greater trust in each other. While this may come across as incredibly simplistic, it’s also incredibly effective.

One of our greatest challenges has been dealing with chronic absenteeism. If a student is not in class, they cannot learn. If a student cannot learn, they cannot be successful. The outside agency hired to work with our school serves as a bridge between the resources we already have (counselors, social workers, etc.) and those needed to help address mental health issues, and it also provides support with engaging parents and the community. Its role focuses on building relationships and removing barriers that keep a student from being successful. For example, the agency can help a student obtain a bus pass if they lack transportation to school.

Lastly, our approach to discipline has moved away from automatic suspensions and now implements more restorative practices. I believe that this is the result of focusing on helping kids manage their attitude and behavior in a more adult capacity. Restorative practices will teach kids the “soft skills” needed to be successful in life.

Moving toward a more equitable education for our students requires multiple steps and greater depth than what is explained here. However, I have no doubt that these new initiatives will indeed precipitate the changes needed to achieve the high-quality education that every student deserves. I am thrilled that my new administration is taking on such an important challenge and is prioritizing equity for our students while also instilling a sense of hope in our school and community.

Jill Cullis teaches Social Studies at Gateway High School in Aurora, Colorado. Jill has been teaching for 32 years and has been involved in everything from leadership roles in her school and district, to writing curriculum, to coaching many different sports.