First Person

On Gestalt: A School Is More Than The Sum Of Its Parts

Schools are complex environments, strewn with relationships amongst adults with a multiplicity of roles and allegiances, complicated by the volatile and competitive relationships of children striving to understand their place in the world. To work in a public school is to daily navigate treacherous political and interpersonal waters, work on various teams, alternately pressure and commiserate with parents in meetings and on phone calls, and conference with children to steer them through issues they encounter in their relationships with others.

Relationships comprise the foundation on which the real work of schools reside. Teachers meet with one another to plan curricula and assessments (or at least, they should), examine and share student work, analyze data, and share resources and ideas on how to manage children with challenging behavior or inadequate academic progress. Students often have strong relationships with multiple adults in the building, such as the security guard, the secretary, another teacher down the hall, or a trusted paraprofessional or school aide. Teachers use tricks to capitalize on these relationships, distracting students in crisis by asking them to deliver pretend “mail” to other teachers, or sending them to a corner or outside the classroom with a co-teacher or paraprofessional to “de-escalate” and engage in a problem-solving conversation.

As a special education teacher, my students often engage with a number of adults on any given day as part of their services delivered via their Individualized Education Program (IEP), such as counseling, speech-language therapy, one-on-one tutoring (SETTS), or occupational therapy. Many of my students are also English language learners (ELLs — gotta love all the acronyms, eh?), and are also pulled for small group English as a second language instruction. This year, I am teaching in an inclusion, co-teaching classroom, and my general education students are also sometimes pulled for academic intervention services (AIS) and dance practice for a school performance. Many of them also attend after-school programs most days of the week.

Now think of how many adults contribute to the education of the students I am responsible for. And the farce that is value-added accountability becomes apparent. How can you possibly disaggregate my individual impact on a student from the collective impact of the school environment and that individual student’s work with other adults?

I am tired of the endless iterations of the line that teachers are the “single most important factor in raising student achievement.” Yes, teachers matter. We are the adults that students spend the preponderance of their time with while in school, therefore we have the greatest impact on student learning. But what about all the other adults that students interact with, build relationships with, and work with? What about the practices, rituals, procedures, and culture of the school? What about the physical environment of the school?

The reality is, the whole school matters, and this quixotic exercise of attempting to disaggregate individual teacher impact on a child completely obscures the real work of a school in developing a positive environment that promotes well-being and intellectual and emotional safety, as well as in delivering a rich, coherent curriculum.

So what should we be measuring, then? How can we possibly hold schools accountable for the learning of the students they are responsible for?

My advice is to recognize the importance of relationships in a school in raising student achievement, and seek a means of measuring the context of a school, such as the trust and strength of relationships between the adults in the building, the ratio of positive to negative words used, and the quality of the physical environment. We can stop shelling out public money yearly to testing corporations, and instead adopt a randomized testing schedule, and we could put some of that money instead towards the much more important face-to-face accountability of leaders stepping foot into schools, rather than examining disaggregated data dissociated from its context. This could be coupled with some modified form of the inspectorate model currently used in the United Kingdom.

But contexts alone are not the only service that schools provide. Schools deliver content to students, and all too often, the critical importance of a strong curriculum is completely ignored. We can measure the strength of a school’s curriculum by assessing how well it is horizontally and vertically aligned, as well as in how well it targets and addresses student gaps in background knowledge.

Let’s stop pretending, therefore, that students are products. It takes a whole school to educate a whole child. And that whole school must have a strong, coherent curriculum that is delivered in an environment of trust and respect that promotes well-being, risk-taking, and empathy.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.