Building Upon School and Community Connections
As schools and districts across the country experience teacher shortages, they often struggle to keep schools appropriately staffed to recruit and retain mission-aligned and context-ready teachers who reflect their school makeup. For school and districts serving urban, high needs communities, this challenge compounds significantly.
With five high schools in our network of 31, our focus on educational outcomes includes creating space within the bounds of the school building and the school day for postsecondary planning and preparation. With support from strong postsecondary partners like YearUp, One Goal, and One Million Degrees, we amplify the impact that we can have. However, part of our work is also to continuously improve upon building AUSL school and community connections. Learn below about one such avenue for our high-schoolers: Academic Cafes.
AUSL’s Wendell Phillips Academy High School is a Bronzeville community institution, providing access and opportunity to students since 1904. In SY16-17, as an opportunity to build upon those deep community connections and support students in meeting individual needs and charting the path to postsecondary success, Phillips implemented “Academic Cafes”. These “cafes” bring adults across the community into the high school to engage and problem-solve with senior students about their behavior, attendance, and grades to ensure progress toward and planning for individual postsecondary success while having authentic and honest conversation. This is also an opportunity for school leaders to gather additional qualitative and quantitative data from and about their students to then be able to better target ongoing, class-wide support.
Last school year, the success of Phillips’ Academic Cafes inspired AUSL’s Collins Academy to implement something similar. This year, with the support of Andrea Yarbrough, AUSL’s Manager of Postsecondary Supports, Collins evolved upon the concept to the delight of the students and adults involved for their first cafe.
A New Student-Adult Engagement Opportunity
“My experience in postsecondary success work is that students thrive when their pathway is grounded in a passion or dream that they’ve had an opportunity to explore,” says Yarbrough. “Sometimes that exploration first comes through [these types of] conversations that challenge and push student thinking about their preparation to pursue their dreams.” Working with Emily Gottlieb, postsecondary coach at Collins, and other members of the senior grade-level team, Collins decided to change things up. “We decided that sometimes seniors get bombarded with questions about their post-secondary plans and hounded to check off tasks to ensure there is a plan in place; however, we rarely take the time to ask them questions about their passions, strengths, hopes, and dreams for the future. We decided to make that the focus of this fall’s Academic Cafe,” says Gottlieb.
I learned things about students that I had no idea about. For example, [the student I spoke with] loves film. We spent…the whole time talking about why he loves film and how he wants to be a director some day.
I really liked [speaking with] Ms. House. She was so nice and talked to me about my dream of using art and poetry as therapy for children. She also [shared] what she does as a community organizer.
I had a good talk with Ms. Garrett – she [motivated] me to keep doing well in school…she told me I had a bright future. I really liked the whole experience.
In addition to Collins building on the original concept of the Academic Cafe, Phillips has also experimented to build a stronger school-based community by asking senior students to sit alongside staff to engage in similar conversations with their freshman and sophomore counterparts. Broadening the scope and focus of the Academic Cafe across both Collins and Phillips has enabled richer conversations that empower students to focus on, discuss, and ultimately make decisions about their postsecondary pathway.
I believe that this experience has truly prepared our students to be able to vocalize their dreams and desires. Half the battle of achieving a goal is being able to verbalize them. My students took a step closer to realizing their aspirations thanks to the Cafe.
-Principal of Collins Academy High School, Lakenya Sharpe
Yarborough acknowledges that “the traditional format…in which students have an opportunity to check-in about their academic status and whether they are on track is extremely important as well. [Both approaches together] allow us to support students more holistically.” As such, Collins plans for the next Academic Cafe to “focus more on getting [students] to complete concrete steps [like] making sure they are submitting enrollment deposits, verifying their FAFSAs, making transportation arrangements to get to school, etc.” as students prepare to graduate next summer, but also looks to make this new approach a staple of all fall Academic Cafes going forward.
Additionally, as a network, this school year, all of our five high schools, for the first time, have or will conduct Academic Cafes through the generous support of AT&T’s Aspire program. We look forward to sharing these learnings and evolving our network vision for this valuable time with students to support and give voice to their aspirations.