A Change of Environment

dsc00686Olivia had some advice for 8th graders considering enrolling in the Maverick Launch program at my high school: “Don’t be worried,” she said. “This is a safe place. You’re always welcome here.”

Recently, I spent a day in McCutcheon High School’s freshman intervention program, called the Maverick Launch, which was initiated a few years ago to meet the needs of incoming at-risk students. Really, this is a school-within-a-school, an innovation in education that has brought success to targeted students in many districts across the country. Maverick Launch is the name of the program—the school mascot is an unbranded steerand it is also the name of the building where approximately 100 lucky students attend high school every day.

“The best thing about Maverick Launch,” a freshman girl, Brittney, told me in an interview a few days later, “is the help from teachers.”

Maverick Launch students follow the same rigorous curriculum as every other freshman student at McCutcheon High School (English students had just read the Odyssey and algebra students were graphing linear equations), but there are only 15-20 students in each class. Thus, learning is much more personalized than it can be in classes that regularly exceed thirty.

Another big difference is that Launch students have two math classes and two English classes every day. One English class focuses on literature; the other on writing and language skills. In math, the first hour is for the presentation of new materials; the second for homework and extra help. The students also take science and FACS every day with their cohort.

Because of the additional English and math learning opportunities, Maverick Launch students can earn two extra credits their freshman year. The extra support means an increased expectation that they will pass Indiana’s graduation qualifying exam sophomore year, and the extra credit hours provide room in the students’ schedules for elective classes in later years.

Students also take two classes each day in the main building, blending easily with the larger student body. “I expected to be treated differently by the kids in the main building, Ethan said, “but I am not.” Like other freshmen, Maverick Launch students choose from the full array of high school course offerings for those two hours, enrolling in such classes as World History, PE, 3D Art, a world language class, computer applications—wherever their interests lie.

Maverick Launch students participate as well in McCutcheon sports and extra-curricular clubs. This year, 47% of the Maverick Launch students are on an MHS sports team and 75% are involved in at least one extra-curricular activity.

Students report other benefits to enrollment in Maverick Launch, too. For starters, former Maverick Launch students are welcome to return anytime throughout high school for extra academic help. Some even choose to serve as teacher’s aides for their former instructors.

Another plus has been the friendships formed in this small-school environment. “We’re like one big family out here,” said Andrew, a graduate of the program.

During my day with the Launch students, I encountered a young man I’d seen in action the previous year in middle school. Robert. He’d been a difficult student—uncooperative, disengaged, often rude. I didn’t even recognize him when I saw him in the Launch. He was working with another student on a collaborative project and he looked happy. His teachers loved him. Something important had changed.

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In this small and supportive environment, it is clear that students are developing habits of learning that will increase their chances for success during the rest of their high school career. They raised their hands, came to class on time, kept their voices down, and apparently did their homework. Not a one balked at giving an oral presentation that was slated for 1st hour the day I was there. They didn’t pack up early and rush the door at the end of the class period. I could tell these were behaviors they’d been taught and ones their teachers expected them to observe. But the atmosphere wasn’t robotic; it wasn’t even regimented. Classes felt relaxed, low-key. 
I noticed as I traveled from class to class that the teachers are consistent in terms of their expectations and procedures–and that leads to a safe and welcoming setting. Kids know what to expect.
Once, during a math class I observed, students began drifting during the teacher’s presentation. He said, in an even tone and barely missing a beat, “I’m reviewing now from Friday. I need your attention. Those of you holding up your head with your hands: Exercise your neck muscles. Hands down. Sit up straight.” All this was delivered in the same voice Mike Etzkorn, the lead teacher in the Maverick Launch, uses for instruction. His redirect was not a chastisement, just a summons to the task at hand.

This is the same teacher who allows earbuds while students are working on the “homework” problems he’ll go over with them the second time they meet, later on in the day. He knows that some kids concentrate better when they’re oblivious to classroom distractions.

This is the same teacher who asked every student, as he made his way around the room, “Are you doing okay?” To one girl, who was randomly hitting the keys on her computer, he said, “Are you just playing?” When she replied that she didn’t understand, he bent down and re-explained.dsc00693

This is the same teacher who said to students, “I’m not ready for you to start the homework”—not, “You’re not ready.” The message came through as “You can do this, but I haven’t spent enough time helping you understand.”

It would be easy to say that the small class size or the double dose of math and English is responsible for the success these students meet, but it’s more than these two factors, critical as they are. These teachers have formed caring relationships with their students, all of whom have learning challenges of one kind or another. Sometimes that caring is communicated in very simple ways: reminding students of their choices when their classwork is complete, giving them a 2-minute warning that lunch is about to start (There are no bells in the Maverick Launch), nudging them about a quiz the next day. Sometimes it’s by asking about the weekend or letting students who need to listen to music as they work, or sitting down next to a student to help her through a problem.

The teachers are consistent in their approach, clear in their directions, and non-judgmental in their reactions. The students trust them because they’re predictable.

dsc00705Mr. Etzkorn explained that the goal is to ease the transition from middle school to high school by establishing a caring, familylike environment. The teachers work as a team. In fact, they meet together at the end of every day–while their students are taking one of those classes in the main building–to plan, confer, and strategize. That planning time together is another ingredient in the recipe for success. The teachers see their students from multiple perspectives and know how they’re doing in subjects other than their own. They know when any particular student is having a bad day, and they all learn about everyone’s challenges and successes.

In this school-within-a-school, Mr. Etzkorn told me, “Students are given the time they need to mature and grow academically.”

In the end, it’s the atmosphere these teachers have established that makes all the difference.

Paul Tough, a journalist-turned-education-sage wrote a book a few years ago called How Children Succeed. In that book, he confirmed everything I’ve known for years—from experience and by instinct—about why some kids are successful and why some aren’t. It isn’t about IQ; it isn’t about money and family resources.

It’s about having the discipline to make yourself study when you’d rather be playing video games or texting or driving around town with your friends on a fine spring night. It’s about persistence—about seeing a teacher after school to get something explained, about giving up a lunch period to visit the math lab, or revising that paper when the assignment to do so is optional. It’s about memorizing the formulas and going over the study notes. It’s about setting a goal and moving toward it, step by step by step.

 

But Tough has good news: These “character” traits, as he calls them, can be taught.

dsc00709In his most recent book, Helping Students Succeed, Tough writes: “If we want to improve a child’s grit or resilience or self-control, it turns out that the place to begin is not with the child himself. What we need to change first is his environment.” Tough’s new book addresses the academic failure that 51% of America’s public school students experience because of poverty and its attendant problems. Poverty may be the root cause of the problems some Maverick Launch students experience, but not all of them. Similarly, they are not students who were identified because of poor discipline records, yet some are familiar enough with the principal’s office. What they do have in common is that all of them were identified in middle school, for one reason or another, as being at risk of not graduating from high school.

Robert, the boy I saw whose experience in the Launch environment has been transformative, is learning how to be a student. In this nurturing environment, he is experiencing success. He is developing the traits of character and the habits of learning that promise a better future.

He is not alone.

When these students move into the main building their sophomore year, their chances for continued success will have improved exponentially. Impressively, one-third of former Maverick Launch students are able to complete their high school coursework and graduate early.

Abby, a sophomore who was enrolled in the Maverick Launch program last year, is now a teacher’s aide during her study hall period. She told me this: “The teachers connect with everyone. They take their time to help you understand.” And then she added, “I’m grateful for all the program did for me.”

She is not alone.

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