Achieve is a 3 year program that serves roughly 85 middle school-aged students. Students start the program in the 6th grade and participate in two years of bi-weekly school-year programming as well as three summers of daily programming. Programming includes academic instruction in English, math, and science as well as enrichment activities.
It’s a sprint, not a marathon; just because you don’t see immediate changes in students doesn’t mean the impact isn’t there.
Helping kids come to their own conclusions about their performance and behavior makes them feel more personally involved in and responsible for their process.
Creative an open and joyful environment makes kids more comfortable with their own successes and failures.
Encourage students to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, so that they see opportunities for growth as opportunities rather than punishments.
Could you give an example of a specific practice or activity in which you encourage growth and improvement over talent and/or static accomplishment?
Just in our application process, we’re very explicit with children and families that we are not looking for the kid who has straight A’s. We say that the only thing we screen for is motivation and the desire to improve, and to do well. We say to kids, “If you have straight C’s, we don’t care.” We’re one of few academic programs who’s going to be like, “Oh, you have straight C’s? Great, we love you.” Because we believe that in middle school, it’s a very malleable time. Kids are still trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. And sometimes kids have straight C’s not because they lack skill or ability, but because they struggle with organization, or they might not remember to bring their homework to school, whatever it might be. So what we say to kids is, “If you really want this, and you really care about growing from a C student to an A student, this is the place for you.” I think it’s really important that from the beginning students understand, even in the admissions process, we are all about growth. That’s what we do. So for our students to hear that’s it’s okay that they’re not perfect, and that this is a place where we work on that, I think that that is really important.
Once they get here, it’s embedded everywhere in our program. It’s embedded in how we train our teachers, it’s in our discipline system. We don’t have demerits, we use restorative justice practices. We do a lot of conversation, a lot of talking, a lot of self-recognition of behaviors. So, like, “What am I doing that is disruptive to this community and how can I work on that?” is a big piece of how we do discipline here. We don’t suspend, and I think that’s really important too. And obviously it’s self-selective, right? Kids are choosing to apply, and a particular kind of student is applying.
But in terms of practices, we have a morning and afternoon meeting every day. The morning meeting is led by a staff member. It’s a different staff member every day, and every staff member has to lead at least one. And it is framed around a particular SEL buzzword. It could be resiliency, or perseverance, or growth, or creativity, or teamwork, or communication, or self-regulation. And every staff member has to share a personal story about a time in their life where they either struggled with that word or realized what that word meant to them. And then in the afternoon, a graduating student, so a student in the oldest group of kids here, does the same thing. And I think they are some of the more powerful moments, when adults are willing to be really vulnerable with kids. And then when our young people lead the conversation, I think that’s really cool.
Then we have these little stickers, those star stickers you can get at the dollar store, and any time an adult sees a kid portraying whatever the qualities of the word is, they get a sticker. So kids will have stickers all over their arms. And then at the end of each week, students are allowed to nominate other students who they feel like are portraying a particular skill. And sometimes it can be over-nomination and kids nominating their friends, but by and large kids are really good about it. And so I think, social-emotionally, that’s a really good practice.
Moving onto the academic realm, a cultural shift that happened a few years ago is that we now have a targeted math instruction (TAI) that happens in the afternoon, and it’s essentially remediation. It’s for the group of students who are in the lowest 20 percentile of math skills; it’s where we feel like we can make really incredible growth and change in our students. Oftentimes our kids have really strong intellectual ability in math, they understand really high-level concepts, but they still can’t do things like long division. So they can’t do algebra. And so, for those kids, they miss a 45 minute book club every day where kids choose their book, and 2 days a week they read, 2 days a week they discuss. So they miss that time, and they’re in targeted math instead. And when we initially did it there was a lot of pushback because they felt different. And so we read some Angela Duckworth and we talked about, “What’s the point of being here if you’re not working on what you need to work on?” And, “What’s the point of not being transparent with ourselves about what our needs are?” And we did this whole activity around, “What are the things you need to work on as a person? What are the things you need to work on as a student?”
All of the adults participated as well. I think the way our adults are vulnerable and model imperfection is a really big piece of it, honestly. Because nobody in this community pretends to have it all together, including me. I think that’s huge. I literally just had a student come up to me and say, “Am I going to be in math TAI this year? Because I’m still struggling in math and I really really need it.” So for them to start recognizing for themselves that being in this intentional program to improve skill-growth is good for them, as opposed to seeing it as a punishment, has been a huge cultural shift. And as a result, the kids in that group are making, on average, much more significant academic gain in the summer in math than our other students. It could be because our other students have less to improve on, but it’s really encouraging to see that they’re seeing it as, “This is what I need to get better at,” as opposed to, “This is a thing that I have to do that’s unfair.” And then we set it up positively for our new students; I pull all of the kids who are going to be in it and I have the oldest students talk to the younger students about what it is, why it’s worked for them, why they like it, what’s frustrating about it, too. And so then the buy-in is pretty good, because when you have students vouching for something it makes the buy-in pretty easy.
How do you help students see setbacks not as failures, but as an opportunity for growth?
That’s hard. We talk a lot about safe failures at Achieve. What are safe failures that kids can have that are not going to go on their transcript, or have them kicked out of their home, etc? What are the safe failures that we can provide for students that help them to understand that failure is a part of the process? So we have some intentional policies around homework and absences that allow kids to understand that decisions that they make have real consequences, but that ultimately aren’t going to make them feel like they’re less than. So, for example, you only get 3 unexcused absences, and if you get 4 the language is, “You may lose your seat at Achieve.” And so oftentimes at the 4th we have this big conversation around what’s happening. And most often they’re not actually kicked out, but it’s scary enough that they realize, “Oh, I can’t just go to my friend’s house instead of coming to the program.” And that’s why our attendance rate is really high. And kids are on each other about it, because they care about the community and they want them to stay. So we’ll have kids that will start to be like, “Okay, I’m going to text you every morning at X time to make sure that you’re here.” And so I think those sorts of built-in policies that are intentional around high expectations, but then also that if a kid starts to not do it, it’s not the end of the world but there’s all of this wrap-around support to make sure kids are doing what they need to do.
How do you create an environment that emphasizes collaboration over competition?
The kids here just have such a good time, and it’s such a supportive place. This is an incredibly happy, loving, supportive community. I think it starts from the adults. We do things here that wouldn’t be allowed in Boston Public Schools. We hug our students all of the time. And we tell them that we love them. And I text our students regularly and they text me. All of the adults go by our first name here. We’re intentional about that, it’s actually a practice that I learned from a school I used to work in, and we talk about how this is not a hierarchy. You don’t call your Mom, “Ms. So and So.” We are a family, and we are a community, and we are going to make mistakes together, and we are going to learn together, and we are going to celebrate each other together. So you’re not going to call me, “Ms. Dowley.” Because then if I get to call you by your first name and you have to call me something different, then it’s essentially saying that we’re not actually all in this work together.
I think that actually sets a really important tone, and when we do have competitions, they’re fun and silly and very much about taking risks in this safe community. We do a lip sync battle every year, and it’s really awesome. The kids pick their songs a week ahead of time so everything is all ready. The kids are split into advisory groups, and every kid in every advisory group has to at least stand up there in some capacity. And it’s incredible. The kids go crazy, and nobody wins. We might have “Most Creative” or “Biggest Risk” but nobody actually wins first place. And the times when we do have winners, they don’t win anything. We have a big field day every year, where there are 12 different events and you get points for coming in first through fourth. And I always say to the kids, “If you come in 4th in everything, you might win.” Then there’s a winner who has the most points, and there’s an oreo eating contest.
It’s never really about winning, it’s never about being the best. Even in the academic realm, it’s always about growth. Everything we talk about with kids is like, “You were there, and now you’re here, and you’re going to get there.” Your top score might not be as top as someone else’s, but they don’t know the scores of other people. I think it’s about the constant emphasis on fun. One of our core principals is joy. I just feel like the amount of joy that is had here, and the amount of fun that we have together, is key.