By Debra Heyler
“Why we gotta learn this? How dis goin’ help us outside? Who cares what happened a long time ago?” A student shares this at the start of our World History class. He is not alone. Another boy chimes in, “Yeah, how dis goin’ help us when we’re out?” That day we were studying the Columbian Exchange and the significance it has on the global connections and influences we experience today.
Most will consider where I work an “atypical” school setting. Students are incarcerated, wards of the State until they either “age out”, get parole, or complete their sentence. Youth correctional officers sit just outside the classroom, ready to enter instantly. This student is 9RR, which means this is his third year as a 9th grader. When out of the facility, he rarely attended school. He’d rather kick it with his friends, tend to his fighting chickens or sell drugs.
He’s a romantic though, sharing with me a poem he wrote for his girl in Language Arts. He has a knack of taking words and putting them to rhyme. He’s quick witted and is great at rapping — he can take anything we’re discussing and drop it to a beat. He’s easily distracted, however, and can be swayed by other students vying to be the alpha in their module. For my lesson on the Columbian Exchange, I share a rap I found on youtube; first the written lyrics, which I manage to perform with appropriate tempo, much to my students amazement and amusement, and then the youtube clip, which featured three high school girls in the format of an MTV music video. The class finds it quirky — but what a great way to hook them in.
For many of the incarcerated youth, this is the first time after months or even years of being in a classroom. Most struggle with substance abuse and come from homes where other family members have been incarcerated or struggled with alcohol and/or drug use. So first and foremost, what is our priority as educators at Olomana School? It is to build a relationship with our students, so we reach through their tough exterior, and ignite their passion for learning.
Yet, the steps we take as teachers in this non-traditional setting to engage and motivate students result in frustration by many of our faculty because of how schools are evaluated on a national and state level. Phrases such as high stakes testing, 9th grade retention, on time graduation, and closing the achievement gap ring in the ears of educators on all levels of the public school hierarchy. As teachers and schools press on to meet the mark and make the grade, one needs to step back and ask, are our students better off? Are teachers being valued for their ingenuity and professionalism? Are schools commended for the things that are working well and that are making a difference in individual student lives?
The faculty at my school have done well at building relationships with their students. As a Priority School (those schools at the bottom 5%), we have had numerous evaluators, all sharing the same message: Our strength is in the relationships we have with our students. Small classes facilitate individualized attention and organized team sports outside of the classroom provide a structure for teachers and students to interact further.
Recently, we implemented project/problem based learning. Teachers and students learning together since our students learn best by hands-on and relevant experiences. Our school has received several awards including multiple State and District Teacher of the Year awards, national recognition for providing an exemplary library program for incarcerated youth and a notable CTE program. Most recently our Counseling Department was a state semi-finalist for an exemplary Positive Behavior Intervention Support program.
Yet, all of these accolades do not increase our school’s likelihood of getting out of the bottom five percent. Most students enter several years behind in high school credit, and several grades below in reading and math. Most of our incarcerated students will age out before realistically obtaining the credits they need to graduate with a high school diploma. Therefore, policy makers need to take a huge step back and ask themselves: How are they creating policy so that success indicators go beyond standardized testing and promotion rates? Can schools that offer alternative completion routes such as GED or competency-based certification also be seen as “successful”. Our faculty will continue to strive to provide the quality education our students deserve, while dialoguing with State policy makers to help them see that this square peg isn’t fitting in.
Debra Heyler is a social studies teacher/data coach at Olomana School on the island of Oahu and a Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband, three children and their dog Koa. Follow her on Twitter @DebbieHeyler.