Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The role of a caring adult

Another coherent collection of related thoughts from the Education Writers Association seminar I attended last week in San Diego. At the first opportunity when we did our first high school visit, I was paired with Cindy Flores, a Grade 9 student at the School of International Business at the Kearney High Educational Complex.
Flores attended a larger middle school before applying for and choosing to attend the SIB at Kearney. The program interested her, and an older sibling attends one of the other schools at the Kearney campus. A reminder Kearney was a 2,000+ student composite high school now broken into four small schools. Each school has its own principal and its own dedicated staff who teach only within their school.
An important question for me to ask was how Flores was finding the social environment at SIB. In covering small-school reviews in Ontario, the importance of the peer group and the intimacy of knowing every peer in your grade cohort was frequently mentioned as a benefit of these 'small by nature' schools. I was curious as to how SIB students might see this given the vast array of middle schools these students are sourced from. The school isn't a 'zone' or neighbourhood school, meaning little to no opportunity to attend with the larger age-group cohort you may have started elementary school with.
Two months into her school year, Flores confirmed she didn't really know that many other people in her grade level. This despite there only being approximately 100 students in Grade 9 and the fact in her four courses this semester she would have an opportunity to be in at least one course with most of the students in her cohort (although I will note she was taking a Grade 10 French course).
The connection she had made, however, was with her advisory. At one point in the SIB tour we were ushered into a room full of students and the principal left so we could speak freely. Each of the four (including Flores) spoke very highly of the advisory and how this adult was the person keeping in touch, encouraging them to apply to bursaries and scholarships and doing the requisite followup if grades or attendance started to slip. The advisory was backed up by the principal, who demonstrated a knowledge of knowing every student's name.
Moving to Linlcoln High School later that day we were able to witness some of that same interaction. Lincoln's setup was more of a hybrid, where 'small learning communities' are the basis of each of the school's four campuses within a campus, led by two principals, two vice-principals and an executive principal. Joe Wiseman, vice-principal of the Science and Engineering Center, led the tour with two students, Xavier McGregor and Enrique Garcia. Again, we heard about this caring adult(s) making connections with students. Wiseman certainly knew and was keeping tabs on where everyone was going and supposed to be.

From EWA San Diego 2009

I specifically asked Wiseman whether he saw himself as an instructional leader, role-modeling and guiding teachers, or as that person connecting with students. He answered he saw his role as both and intertwined, that in providing instructional leadership to his teachers, he was connecting with students and vice-versa.
These visits allowed some important connections to concepts discussed in panels-- including one not so explicitly stated but that I've pulled out of the larger narrative: the importance of a caring adult to a student's success.
"How do we ensure every student is known and cared about?" Education Trust's Karin Chenoweth said in a Sunday panel titled, 'What big districts can learn from small schools.' "Who is hired to teach and assigned to which classes? How are teachers supervised?"
This is a concept I believe -- although the only person who disagreed during the entire seminar was Michael Klonsky -- can be picked up and implemented in any high school regardless of size with the right leadership in place and the right staff working in that team.
Further, though they're not directly comparable, an advisory isn't really that different from a student success teacher, mandated in 2005 and in place as part of Ontario's student success strategy since then. They're caring adults specifically tasked to connect with high school students who are at-risk of not successfully completing the first years of high school. In many schools, they're supplemented by guidance and vice-principals who take on many of the roles we saw on display at the schools we visited in the seminar.
Most importantly for my point in this post, they're in place at every high school in Ontario, regardless of size.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well done ER!

Sounds also very much like Ontario's very successful Pathways program but on a much grander scale.