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Partnerships and Building Relationships / Storytellers

Beyond the Classroom: Where the Magic Can Happen

About six months ago I moved from Minneapolis to New York City.

I moved to take a two-year position at Inwood Academy for Leadership, a small charter school that serves a population made up almost entirely of Dominican kids from the Inwood and Washington Heights neighborhoods of Manhattan, many of whom are living in poverty, struggle with English, and come to us grade levels behind. It’s a remarkable school that does remarkable work for these kids.

My kids too.

You see, both of my sons go to this school as well.

One is in 8th grade, the other in 5th. We lived in a suburb outside of Minneapolis for the bulk of their young lives. They went to fantastic schools in Minnesota and had a network of friends, resources, and opportunities that were pretty close to ideal. That background paired with their blue eyes and blonde hair made the transition to their new school seemingly jarring. On paper, these two boys going to this school just shouldn’t have worked.

Except that it is working. Amazingly. We just had parent-teacher conferences this morning and by all accounts, both boys are not only doing well, they’re thriving. Their report cards (Common Core aligned of course) were an accurate reflection of their academic progress thus far. The teachers were proud of them, and we’re proud of the teachers.

But there was something not listed on the report card.

There was something unquantifiable not reflected there. While the boys are transitioning beautifully academically, how could it be that in short order they have found themselves so fantastically well-adjusted, socially and emotionally? How could they find such a sense of place in a place so foreign? There are a lot of contributing factors to this but few more impactful than their involvement in after-school activities.

My 8th grader played for the school’s flag football team and my 5th grader was on the track team. This brought them into the community more not only because of opportunities to meet new friends but also because of the sphere of adults who were there to coach, connect, and comfort. School goes every day from 7:30 – 4:00. After school activities last from 4:00 – 6:00. And technically, it’s true that nothing from 4:00 – 6:00 shows up on their test scores or their College and Career Readiness scales.

But you and I know the truth. The relationships being forged and support being given in these critical out of school times are not only reflected in their social and academic growth but are actually the very reasons for this success. Were it not for the awesome work being done by these adults in the lives of my own children, I do not think I’d be writing this in the same emotional space. This transition could have been so rough and instead, it has been so good. That’s magic.

The reality is that schools face entirely new pressures in today’s educational arena and are being forced to rethink how they teach, assess, and evaluate their academic work with students.

A classroom is an increasing environment that is predicated on test preparation and ever-narrowing definitions of what “successful students” look like. Not all of these shifts are bad. Some are driving tremendous innovations in teaching and learning. But often these shifts come at a price, as educators are not always able to connect with students in the same meaningful fashion that they perhaps once did.

That is why the work of out of school adults has never been more critical.

If ever there were a growth opportunity within the ecosystems for youth, the essential role of out of school adults is front and center. It’s fair to say that the pendulum in education has swung towards accentuating academic outcomes more than social/emotional outcomes. And while that pendulum shift can pose challenges to students and educators alike, it certainly intensifies the work that adults outside of the curricular sphere do.

Gone are the days where after-school enrichment is erroneously depicted as “glorified babysitting.” Gone too are notions that other positive adults in the lives of students beyond the classroom teacher are “nice for kids.” Nonsense. That has always been nonsense, but it’s uniquely the case in today’s arena. In fact, in the present scenario it’s a legitimate argument that the crucial work of out of school adults will no longer augment the work of educators in the classroom but will actually be setting a relationship-based foundation on which the great work of classroom educators can be built.

I don’t mean to pose absolutes about the roles adults play in the lives of students.

Of course, classroom educators will always be in the relationship-building business. And out of school adults are also in the education business. But I would suggest that as our classrooms struggle to adjust to the new landscape of hyper-intensified testing and evaluation we will rely more strongly than ever on the tremendous efforts of out of school staffs to connect kids to school, their peers, and their own view of themselves.

As a teacher, I knew this to be true. But as a parent, I know it more clearly than ever.

I see it in the experiences my boys have every day. I see it in their faces as they talk about the adults who surround them in all their hours at school. And while those experiences aren’t going to show up in their permanent academic records, I know that the successes they’re having are not accidental. These successes are due to intent and practice. The intentional relationships that are being built through the artful practice of their out of school staff members. Consider this post a public thank you letter not only to these stellar adults in our children’s lives but a thank you to you because I know that what I’ve written here rings true for families everywhere. So keep it up. We need you now more than ever.

This morning I enjoyed a breakfast sandwich with fried egg, pepper-jack cheese, turkey bacon, and green salsa and 2 cups of coffee.


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