Like Looking in a Mirror…
Denver’s Manual High School was a traditional comprehensive high school of 1,100 students with the city’s lowest student test scores and a high concentration of low-income students. In 2000, Manual High School received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to break up into three autonomous small schools. But the test scores remained low, and Denver closed Manual in 2005.
As I took in all of this information at the 2006 CES Small Schools Project Summer Institute, I couldn’t help feel bothered and worried. It was amazing to me to hear all of this. The similarities between Manual High School in Denver, Colorado and Tyee High School in Sea Tac, Washington were uncanny and unsettling.
Tyee was a school of 1,200 students that was broken up into three autonomous small schools in 2005. As with Manual, Tyee is located in an area where more than half of the students are on free or reduced lunch. As with Manual, our test scores never fared well. The similarities stretched on; even the facility arrangements struck a chord—at both schools, small schools share a campus.
Those initial similarities amazed and concerned me. I wondered if it were at all possible for Tyee High School to head down that same road as Manual. But important differences were apparent. As I thought about it, I saw that the process with Tyee had something that it seemed Manual hadn’t. It’s the number one thing that comes up when students at CES conferences talk about what they wish they had more of at their schools. That thing is the Manual student voice, being able to impact what’s going on in their schools, to simply be in the know. The ability to invest and trust in their students to know what they need and want out of school as they engage us in this necessary work is what I believe has made the conversion process at Tyee different. This is what will ultimately lead to the success of Tyee’s three small schools.
The Making of a Small School
Although the decision to pick out our three small schools was rushed, the final decision was made with as much student input as possible at the time when Odyssey: The Essential School, Global Connections, and the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment (A.C.E.) were chosen.
Following that, in the winter of 2004-2005, the Tyee staff did one of the smartest things that they could have done. They extended the invitation to join one of these three design teams to the students. Soon thereafter, in January 2005, the design teams started meeting. Due to support from the district, the staff was able to have certain days when there was no school, an early release, or a delayed start. At these times, when the students weren’t there, the staff had time to develop each school. It was during these days that students who chose to come also attended these meetings, and for the most part we were given a chance to participate equally.
Not every student was always given the opportunity to do meaningful work. Sometimes students were there doing nothing in particular, just following along as teachers discussed things that we as students knew little about or had little say over. Because of this and other factors (besides coming to school when we could have been sleeping) some students stopped attending the meetings.
But there were others who stayed, so each school still had a handful of students working with it. There were days when teachers were off holding their own meetings. During these times, we as students held our own meetings as well which were facilitated by an adult who made sure to give us our own space as he made us question our school system as it is now. We were given time to consider what made the perfect school and what it was that we needed in order to succeed today. This gave us extra time to think things through and enter back into our design teams with more ideas than before—although we weren’t always given the opportunity to voice or implement our new ideas. For example, in an area like ours, it wasn’t very likely that we would get student exchange programs or get to travel to different countries right off the bat.
But as the work continued and the end of the school year was drawing near, there were two important things left to do. The first was allowing students to choose their small schools. Everyone was given the chance to rank their schools by their first, second and third choice. But we weren’t allowed to choose without first having everyone view a student-made video on the conversion process. The video was used to convey information about the three small schools as well as what CES is.
This was great since students got to be involved instead of standing by. And the incoming freshmen got to receive this information from their peers who had been there first hand. The next important thing left to do was, of course, hire principals. It was a two-step process, and students were allowed to interview and give our input during the first step. Two students participated with teachers from their design team as they interviewed potential principals. Doing this is important since, essentially, your principal is a reflection of your school.
With the principals chosen and our schools getting ready to open, each school brought students from their design teams to the 2005 CES Small Schools Summer Institute in Tacoma. This was another way in which to involve us as students. Sadly, the students who got to go were the same who had been part of the whole process; it was not open to the entire student body. In one way, it’s reasonable, since students wouldn’t have any interest in going to a conference put on by an organization that they knew nothing about.
But the lack of widespread knowledge of CES was a sign of how communication could have been better. Even though it would have been difficult in a school of 1,200, we could have taken time to learn more about CES. As well, in the beginning, up until some time before we had to choose our school, a lot of students thought that the juniors and seniors would graduate from Tyee High School, thus phasing the school out while adding a new class of students each year. So some didn’t know until later that we would all be thrown into this new experience together. Had communication been clearer, things could have been different.
There could have been days where any single period could have been designated where the whole school would discuss what was going on in each design team and why it was that Tyee needed to change. Instead of teaching math or art, each teacher could have reported out on what was going on in their own design team, what was happening in the other teams, as well as holding discussions surrounding what needed to change. These discussions could have been instrumental in designing each school as each design team would have had the opportunity to gather feedback from the entire student body. So, as I stated before, things could have been different. This would have showed that the teachers were really trying to have student input in the creation of their school. This would have been above and beyond simply offering to allow us into their design team meetings and passing the buck when students didn’t come. For those who couldn’t make it to these early morning meetings, or simply did not even know about them, these in-school discussions could have been a way in which they would have had the opportunity to influence these three new schools as well as learn more about the entire conversion process.
Within the First Year at Odyssey
But once the school year started, one could see that the staff at Odyssey—the school I chose—was amazingly open to having students take a big role in whatever was going on. They made an effort to invite students to staff meetings as they tried to reiterate that they wanted us to take control and make it our school, to mold it into what we saw fit. This is easier said than done, of course, as we can’t be expected to all of a sudden take control when all along we’ve been told that this is the way that things were going to be because someone else said so. When presented with all of this opportunity, we didn’t quite know what to do with it. People who haven’t been exposed to ideas like intersession (for us, intersession is three weeks at the end of each semester in which we take two classes that will fulfill our health, PE, and art credits along with other classes like hiking or spoken word) and being on teacher-hiring committees don’t know that it’s possible; few have taken the time to think about it. And then there is a problem with getting these ideas approved and to get them going when they come from students.
At times it feels that adults aren’t as receptive as they could be about students’ ideas for change. At times adults look at what students want and decide that it doesn’t fit in with their agenda. Adults have their own ideas of what needs to be done and so have that as a top priority, forgetting that this isn’t simply their school, it’s our school. Our priorities as a school should include concerns and plans from everyone involved. Just as we as students should have to tell the adults what we want and what we need in order to get things done, they should in turn tell us what must be done this school year and what they think they need since we are a community.
Before my experience on a design team, I had never given much thought to what could be better about Tyee besides the curriculum. So it’s important to be aware of that and make sure that opportunities arise where students can be included. Always be thinking about how your decision will affect your student body. If it will, then students should have a say or, at least, a chance to give feedback on a decision. For example, in June 2005, a number of students got the opportunity to interview and help hire new language arts and math teachers at Odyssey.
Things that have also set our school apart are programs like lunch forums where students sign up to participate in a discussion during lunch (lunch is provided) on set topics that could range from inclusion to how well your school is or isn’t doing and what needs to change. Meanwhile, the teachers sit on the outside of the discussion listening in, taking notes on our suggestions.
Odyssey also has S.P.P., which is short for Student Power Project. It’s a space given to us as students once a week on a rotating period where we can come together to discuss different issues affecting our school and the community. From there, we try to formulate action plans so that we can do something to change it. One discussion that sticks out most in my mind is one that we had as a large group about the “n-word,” who can say it, who can‘t say it, when it‘s okay, when it‘s not okay, and if it‘s okay at all, as well as the history of the word. It’s been one of the best things for our school as we get to talk and learn about things that we don’t usually get an opportunity to discuss in school, and it gives us the opportunity to develop deeper thinking around it as we take in other people’s viewpoints.
But nothing has been easy. These programs are amazing, as are the people who created them at our school, Briana Herman-Brand and Jeremy Louzao, our school‘s student empowerment consultants. They among the multiple people who have been instrumental to the growth of student voice in our school. So I realize that we are blessed to have these two adults who work at our school solely to increase student voice.
But I still feel that deeply motivated people at other schools can start up their own programs centered on student voice. It isn’t easy, but it’s one of the simpler things that one can do to help the student body take ownership of their school. We at Odyssey still struggle and we still have a lot of work to do. S.P.P., for example, has had trouble moving past the discussion part of our time together. But we are learning lessons from that and are moving forward to try and create a better experience, before starting it up again this fall. But just doing as much as we have done to include students and make sure that we have an active voice in our school has deeply helped to inspire pride in our school. It’s the one thing that comes up time and time again when we’re asked about what we like about Odyssey.
We’ve learned some lessons that might be helpful for other schools. First of all, make sure that if you do decide to open up and allow students to take part in the creation of your school, invite them for meaningful work that they will be able to influence. There’s no need for a token student, just so that you’ll be able to say that your school had student input. It’ll show if your new small school does or doesn’t include student voices. And make sure that you reach out to parents to keep them fully updated on what’s going on. If you’re a conversion school, make sure that you get that out there, that you tell families what’s going on regularly through letters at the very least. And at least make an attempt to write those letters in more languages than just English and Spanish. In its last year, Tyee held multiple meetings to inform the community of the coming changes. In an area so diverse, it’s important to keep everyone informed so they feel like a part of the community instead of excluded by default.
We’re only in our second year as a school and yet the differences between then and now are already evident. For me the answer to the question, “Could the Tyee Campus head down the same path as Manual?” is already clear. We still struggle with attendance, but the number of fights on our campus has gone significantly down and already students feel more comfortable approaching their teachers as student-teacher relationships have improved. And students are experiencing a new type of power that has allowed us to grow proud of our school as we are given opportunities to voice our opinions and make things happen, thus allowing us to take ownership of our school. We‘re moving forward to a place where we can reclaim our voices.
Odyssey: The Essential School
Odyssey: The Essential School, in SeaTac, serves the communities of Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park, SeaTac, Boulevard Park, and White Center in Washington state. Part of the CES Small Schools Project, Odyssey is in its second year as a new small school created from Tyee High School.
My name is Isaura Jimenez, I currently live in Sea Tac, Washington, where I attend Odyssey: The Essential School. This year, one of my main goals is to get ready for college as I’m set to graduate as part of the class of 2008.