FRIDAY, APRIL 15, 2016

Too often, we think of our girls as numbers, percentages, and statistics. As I address the theme of this session: Exploring Best Practices in educating girls of color to ensure they make a successful transition to and through higher education, I’d like to present the work of the Institute for Student Achievement through the lens of a young girl who was a student in an ISA partner school.

It is August 2008, and Latoya Jackson, not unlike most rising 9th graders, is nervous and uneasy about attending high school. Other than the initiation rituals that freshmen were expected to endure from the upperclassmen, her high school friends had not talked much about their high school experiences. Her two older brothers had dropped out of high school, as had most of her male and female cousins.

Latoya not only wanted to complete high school but to be the first in her family to finish college.
She dreamed of becoming a doctor and imagined herself in a white coat and a stethoscope like Dr. Maria Greenberg who had saved her grandmother when she suffered a severe heart attack when Latoya was eight years old.  She kept thinking how “cool” it must be to save lives, to relieve people from suffering, to find a cure for cancer.

When she could slip away, she would watch the Discovery Channel programs about breakthroughs in science and medicine and technology and hear herself, Dr. Latoya Jackson, being paged.

But, often when she would drift into her dream world, she’d pinch herself and say “back to earth, LaToya”! You?! A doctor?! How can that be?! What Black female doctors do you know?!

LaToya remembered how proud she was when she won 2nd prize at her elementary school’s science fair, but that was a long time ago. She was reluctant to share her dreams with family members and friends for fear of being ridiculed, except she’d whisper to her mother from time to time that she wanted to be a doctor, and her mother would give her an encouraging nod.

Entering high school, LaToya had not done well on standardized tests and was performing well below grade level. She had been suspended in 8th grade for standing up to a group of girls who were bullying her. Her 8th grade profile described her as low achiever and angry.

Like many young African American girls growing up in tough inner city public housing where guns, violence, drugs, physical and sexual abuse, high unemployment and resource-stripped communities and schools are the norm, the odds for Latoya becoming a doctor were slim.

No doubt, many of you know young girls like LaToya, though the name might be different, the circumstances are the same.

Now, fast forward to Latoya’s college graduation on May 8, 2016, when she will receive a B.S degree in Biology with a minor in Public Policy.

So, we ask ourselves:

Despite the challenge of growing up in a difficult inner city environment, with few resources and role models, what were the supports that allowed LaToya to beat the odds and make a successful transition to and through higher education?

How was LaToya able to transcend the risk factors that so many girls of color face and still achieve her aspirations? Risk factors such as:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling of “not belonging”
  • Poor academic foundational skills
  • “Gendered racism”
  • Lack of female role models of color

I would argue that the biggest support was that Latoya was able to get to a place where the adults recognized that she and other girls like her, are not the problem but that the problem is in the environment and that the girls are merely responding to an undermining environment.

They can’t reach their aspirations by themselves. They need help.

If you change the environment, you can change the outcomes for girls of color who live in poor communities.

For Latoya, her high school was her safety net. It was the place where all students were expected to succeed in high school, enter college and graduate from college, regardless of their 8th grade profiles.

At Latoya’s school, all students visit various colleges beginning with 9th grade, signaling that the expectation of attending college is real.

Her school was the place where teachers cared about her interests and aspirations and leveraged those to design rigorous and culturally relevant college prep academic programs.

It was the place where all students were expected to think, reason, inquire, to use information and knowledge to solve real-world problems and where student voice and choice were encouraged and valued.

It was a place of high expectations and high supports. Students were given opportunities for extra academic support. They were able to develop leadership skills, to participate in internships (LaToya’s was with an African American doctor) and to engage in community service projects.

They learned not to be afraid of taking risks and to challenge racial, gender and economic injustices, which is the primary reason LaToya is pursuing a minor in public policy.

The school was organized to make sure that No kid was allowed to fall through the cracks.

LaToya was able to develop a close and trusting relationship with her teacher advisor, who for four years, was her go-to person, her advocate with whom she could celebrate her successes and share her vulnerabilities, be they academic, social or emotional.

In this close-knit setting, with the 16 other students in her advisory, she could share her dreams with her peers who encouraged her to pursue them, not ridicule her. She was then able to support other students and develop a sense of belonging at the school.

Feeling that she had a caring and trusting school community, Latoya was able to make an investment in herself.

This place—LaToya’s school—might sound a little like Lake Wobegon, but I promise you, it is not. It is real.

The Institute for Student Achievement, for the past 25 years, has been partnering with schools and districts to reinvent high schools so that students who are underserved and underperforming, like LaToya, graduate prepared for success in college.

ISA’s comprehensive approach has three core areas of focus that are supported by seven research-based principles, necessary for designing excellent and equitable high schools for marginalized students.

Those three areas are: College Preparatory Teaching and Learning; Building Relationships and Personalization and Continuous Improvement.

ISA’ approach is evidenced-based with two independent evaluation studies showing that students in ISA supported schools outperformed matched comparison students on almost all student performance indicators, including high school graduation rates and college entrance and persistence rates.

Time doesn’t permit me to go into more detail about the ISA approach, but I have provided you with our brochure which gives additional information about ISA’s whole school reform model.