Note: All names in this story are pseudonyms to protect individual identities.
It was my first day as a teacher. I didn’t know what to do as Edward stared back at me, his eyes conveying a mix of shock and resistance. So, I repeated myself. “Please read the next paragraph out loud for the class.” I learned in my brief teacher training program that short, clear instructions are effective. This seemed to meet that criteria. “Edward, I’m not going to ask you again,” I muttered, not knowing this to be a wholly ineffective motivational phrase. Finally Toni broke the silence, “Dang Mr. H, stop bugging him, you know Edward can’t read.”
“Don’t say that!” I snapped. Another ineffective technique, but I’d only been a teacher for about two hours, so what did I know? Standing at the front of the room, staring at my class, my mind raced. This is 10th grade English, of course Edward can read. He must just be refusing to participate. I heard that students push back at the start of the year, so this is what’s happening. I’ll hold my ground. “Edward,” I said, “This is your last warning, read the next paragraph.” And, predictably enough, the stand-off continued. After repeating this routine for a few weeks I realized that Toni wasn’t trying to be a jerk that first day; he was trying to advocate for Edward. Edward couldn’t read.
Edward was, quite literally, ten years below grade level. I soon learned that he was not an outlier in my room.
To grasp Edward’s story, and the story of so many of my students that year, one needs to understand the context of my classroom. I taught self-contained, high school special education for students with “mild” disabilities. My students, mostly males of color, had been placed in the most exclusionary form of special education despite being cognitively capable. I taught in a school that had been underperforming for years, that was under investigation from the Office for Civil Rights, and was located in a city that had just declared bankruptcy. My colleagues displayed classic symptoms of burnout and bias, most notably reflected in their exceedingly low expectations - I stopped going to the faculty room where special education teachers were called “babysitters.” I taught in a classroom that had seen eight teachers come and go the year prior. Consistency, which is so important for all kids, was not the norm.
My students were not the problem. Like all kids, they were bright, capable, and curious. My students were stuck in an oppressive system that never gave them a chance. The outcome of this stared me in the eyes when I called on Edward that first day to read.
I continued my public education journey after two years in this role. I went on to teach special education at a high performing charter school in Richmond, California. I attended a 14 month principal preparation program at UC Berkeley, the best professional development of my career. And I led, as both an Assistant Principal and Principal at two excellent charter schools. Despite all of these rich experiences, I learned my most valuable lessons that first year teaching. I developed three short rules that have come to define my perspective as an educator:
- Don’t segregate kids. It doesn’t work. Inclusion works.
- Make sure every kid can read on grade level. And, start young, very young.
- Treat every kid as a scholar because they are brilliant.
Given these three rules, it should come as little surprise that I ended up at Impact Public Schools. As I transitioned out of school leadership and into home office leadership, I needed to find an organization meaningfully “doing the work.” Here’s what “doing the work” looks like, from my perspective, at Impact.
Rule 1: Don’t segregate kids. It doesn’t work.
As a former special education teacher, this is perhaps the most important belief I hold. Segregating students into separate classrooms is absurd. This is the ultimate way of conveying to kids that they do not matter, that they do not belong, and that they cannot achieve on par with their peers.
At Impact, we are open to every child and we are fully inclusive. Our belief is that every scholar can and should receive “just right” instruction in their classroom. We leverage small group breakouts, multiple access points, strategic online learning platforms, and relentless teacher support to ensure all scholars access material and thrive. No child in our organization will be put in a separate environment. No child will be led to believe that they do not belong.
Rule 2: Make sure every kid can read on grade level. And, start young, very young.
We are relentlessly committed to literacy development. We start rigorous reading instruction in kindergarten. We leverage small group instruction where every scholar practices with texts at their instructional level, direct phonics instruction, whole class text analysis, teacher read alouds, and literacy-rich projects. We constantly progress monitor, celebrating scholar growth and strategically creating action plans when a scholar veers off track. Our literacy data is a proof point that this approach works - scholars exceed national expectations on both Fountas and Pinnell and MAP reading assessments. If Edward had gone to Impact, his life story would be different. Our scholars’ future high school teachers will not have to close ten year gaps. Our scholars will leave Impact on grade level.
Rule 3: Treat every kid as a scholar because they are brilliant.
Edward and his classmates did not know they were smart. For years their teachers created and then reinforced a belief that they would not achieve. This was the greatest barrier that I faced as their teacher. At Impact, we know identity and belonging are as important as reading and math. We have a robust social emotional learning program to foster connection, reflection, and introspection. We celebrate our scholars every day in the classroom for taking academic risks, with “Kiss your brain” chants and “Send some love” hand signals. The walls of classrooms and hallways are absolutely covered in scholar work, and families are invited in to tour every quarter, with scholars showing off their learning. Impact scholars will leave our school knowing they belong in academic settings. This sense of belonging will undoubtedly help scholars continue to persist and pursue their bold ambitions.
The most beautiful part of Impact is that we start young. I spent eleven years working in high schools and wondering what happened in elementary classrooms. All kids can and should learn, and there is simply no excuse for a student to enter secondary grades significantly below grade level. At Impact, we are preventing gaps from occurring. At Impact, we believe that every scholar is brilliant, and that it is our responsibility to harness this brilliance.
I wish Edward had an Impact in his community. His life would be different.