Considering the Whole Student: Lessons on Supporting Youth Off Track to Graduate

Manny Allen speaks to visiting educators at BINcA.

by Elise Swinford
March 2019

“Don’t assume that education is already important to everyone,” Manny Allen told a room of more than twenty educators. Allen, Director of the Boston Public Schools Re-engagement Center, made the case to these educators from district, Catholic, and charter schools that for students who are off track to graduate, you have to show them the value of being at school. “Get students to look through school instead of looking at school,” he said, referring to his practice of showing students what jobs require what level of education.

This audience of school leaders and teachers had just finished a day of visits to the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea and the Boston International Newcomers Academy (BPS) as part of a day of school visits sponsored by the Boston Compact in collaboration with the Teacher Collaborative.

At Phoenix Academy earlier that morning, Chief Academic Officer Liz Murray described the school’s mission as serving disconnected and underserved youth using new instructional practices and structures. The school launched Phoenix Forward about a year and a half ago in order to manage the significant change work.  Murray reflected, “It was really hard… We did some deep soul searching…[looking at questions such as], ‘How do [students] navigate in a racist society?… How do we change our mindset from punitive to restorative discipline?’”  The students who spoke with our group participated in the Student Design Team and shared that even seemingly small shifts have made a difference in their school experiences.  One student noted how the competency-based portfolio assessments mean she does not have to wait for tests, but can “zoom ahead” as she masters concepts, which in turn allows her more time for paid work.

Later that afternoon, a panel of educators at BINcA talked about how they support students. “My goal is that each student has an adult in the building they know really well,” one educator noted. This “whole student” approach, enhanced by wrap around school-sponsored around services, is geared towards a student population with diverse academic, linguistic, and socio-economic backgrounds. Reflecting on best practices to help close the opportunity gap for this population, Headmaster Tony King saw his staff’s focus on being as flexible as possible with school schedules as key to making sure older, parenting, and working students could still complete school.

While all educators that day agreed that no one has found the perfect solution for supporting students who are off track to graduate, visiting teachers overwhelmingly noted that they learned something during the school visits that they plan implement in their own schools. One participant said the lessons from the school leaders and Manny Allen were “practical” because they were both “useful things [they] could implement tomorrow” as well as ideas the educators could “dream about for future years.”