Picturing Grace

Author: Dr. Rachael McClain, Chief of Staff, Collegiate Edu-Nation

Several years ago, I spent a good bit of time with 20 academically fragile high school students over the course of a school year while conducting research for my dissertation.  These 16-to-18-year-old students were all labeled as “potential at-risk” for dropping out of school.  And during our year that we spent together, several did, in fact, drop out of school.  I asked the students in one of our many discussions that we shared during the year to tell me a time in their life when they felt successful.  Most, if not all, struggled with an answer to this question. Sometimes the answer was never. One student recalled in 3rdgrade he was awarded a certificate from his teacher…and that was when he felt successful.  Another shared a time when he was able to figure out the best way to carry a heavy box up to a second floor apartment when he was helping his brother move….that act was a time he felt successful.

Their answers were telling.  This diverse group of students had only experienced “success” in a limited fashion by the world’s standards (and maybe an excellent follow-up question from me should have been how do you define success). Regardless of their personal definitions, the challenge for this fragile group of students to label any part of their young life as successful speaks to their experiences, or lack of, in their first 16, 17, 18 years of life.

Google the word “Success” and 15 or so definitions from various sources are readily accessible.  But I like this one:  success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.  I often think about those fragile students and wonder where they are today.  Do they have a purpose?  Are they on track to achieve their aim?  If asked today, would any of them be able to share a time they felt successful?

As education leaders we are blessed with many opportunities to make students successful.  Not just make them feelsuccessful, but truly set a child on a path with an aim or purpose leading to authentic success with tools, skills, and training needed for high wage, high demand careers.  As education leaders we are responsible to create an environment where all students can develop skills and grow their talents…where all students’ can be on a path with aim or purpose.

What happens when we as educators are not successful with the opportunities presented?  I mentored a young middle schooler through her time in 7thand 8thgrade.  I will call her Grace.  Grace was living with her grandmother and multiple siblings and cousins.  Both parents were in prison for drug possession and trafficking.  Grace loved to fight out her problems…literally.  For each week that Grace opted NOT to fight, I would meet her for lunch.  She wanted to be a nurse.  Working with her grandmother, we moved Grace into the STEM/Early College prep program and surrounded her with support.  She showed progress.  However, when Grace moved to high school, the support system began to collapse.  I was not able to meet with her weekly.  Her family’s reputation preceded her into classrooms and some adults questioned why she would be in the “early college” program. Fast forward three years…Grace is a drop out.  She withdrew to home school and lost her aim of being a nurse.  I failed her.  The school failed her.  The community failed her.  There are no successful endings to the story of Grace and generational poverty repeats again.

I share this anecdotal case not to be depressing, but rather to offer encouragement and support for educational leaders.  Who is your Grace?  Picture her (or him).  Resolve to build a system that allows the Graces in the school to have every chance to achieve their aim and fulfill their purpose.  It is what I would like to think we do in our work with Collegiate Edu-Nation and our partner districts.

It is a crazy and tall order, a true calling, to be an educational leader that leads students to success.

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