A Change of EnvironmentBy Sarah Powley
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 always 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.
In his most recent book, Helping Students Succeed, Tough goes further, writing: “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.
Recently, I spent a day with the teachers and students in a program initiated a few years ago at McCutcheon High School in Lafayette, Indiana, to meet the needs of incoming at-risk students. The “Maverick Launch”—so named because the school’s mascot is an unbranded steer—is a school-within-a-school, an innovation in education that has brought success to targeted students in many districts across the country.
Poverty may be the root cause of the problems some Maverick Launch students experience, but not all of them. 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—approximately 100 lucky students—were identified in middle school, for one reason or another, as being at risk of not graduating from high school.
The goal of the program is to ease the transition from middle school to high school by establishing a caring, family-like 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 than their own. They know when any particular student is having a bad day, and they learn about everyone’s successes as well as their challenges.
“Students are given the time they need to mature and grow academically,” the lead teacher, Mike Etzkorn, told me. [continued on next page]