Birth of a Super School: The Launch
Over the past year, HGSE has followed Kari Croft, Ed.M.’15 (pictured, center, with cofounder Erin Whelan, right), as she worked on launching RISE High — an innovative high school aimed at serving the unique needs of Los Angeles-area homeless and foster youth. In August 2017, RISE High opened and now serves over 80 students across two sites with its unique model that ensures transient students can receive steady access to quality education tied to wraparound services.
RISE was named one of 10 $10-million winning school projects by XQ: The Super School Project — a national campaign co-led by the Emerson Collective’s Laurene Powell Jobs and Russlynn Ali asking educators to design new high school models.
Since our last talk, you’ve been busy opening the school on the ground. What was the time leading up to the opening in August like?
In June, we celebrated [the pilot’s] first graduating class of 12 students. From there we began preparing to onboard our full staff and jumped into recruiting students. Since then, we have grown from a team of six staff members and 30 students to 16 staff and over 80 students across two sites. We welcomed our new staff mid-July for summer professional development, and spent three weeks aligning around the vision of RISE and learning the instructional and student support models. Our new teachers taught a two-week summer school course to returning students and used it as both an opportunity for kids to take additional classes and for the chance to “test-run” the new instructional strategies. We focused a lot on the big picture: building a strong culture among and between staff and students, laying a solid instructional foundation, and focusing on the holistic needs of the student. Now that we’re finished with our first quarter, we’re refining and strengthening the model to ensure we’re serving kids as best we can and that our teachers also feel supported throughout the process.
We have also jumped into our partnership with local nonprofit, A Place Called Home, which has a track record of doing absolutely beautiful work with kids and families. We are working with them diligently to figure out how to make the partnership more and more cohesive for students so that they are receiving the highest quality of services and support possible.
How did it feel to finally open? How were the first few months?
Our first day of school was beautifully overwhelming. We had looked forward to it for so long, and even though it was a bit hectic, I think we were able to take in the gravity of it and feel proud of our students and our team. Since then, we’ve been constantly grateful for our staff and for how hard they work for and with our students.
While there’s still a lot we hope to improve, we felt we had a strong first quarter. Our enrollment continued to grow, students gave positive feedback about their experiences, teachers continued to build out a curriculum that is aligned to our school competencies, case management and holistic service provision kicked in, and staff culture has been positive. We feel incredibly supported by Da Vinci Schools and by XQ, and our community partners have stepped in to help out in any way possible — from leading PD to assisting with recruitment to just being on call to answer tricky questions.
We also had the opportunity to celebrate the work of our students and staff at the XQ Super Schools Live event. They invited our school to be a part of the live filming, and even brought some students to the red carpet event ahead of time so that they could see their favorite celebrities arrive. It was the first time our students from the two sites got to meet each other, and it was a really beautiful opportunity for strengthening relationships, building culture, and cultivating school pride.
There have definitely been moments that required critical reflection of our work and pushed us to have honest — and sometimes difficult — conversations with each other and with students, but we’ve come out feeling stronger as a team and ready to tackle the next quarter. Honestly, even during the difficult weeks, we’re having a lot of fun doing this.
What was most challenging aspect of opening the school?
The biggest challenge for me and my staff has been simply that it is time-consuming and requires an unbelievable amount of mental and emotional energy to start up a school and support our students throughout the process. This first quarter was all hands on deck, and everyone was constantly working overtime to lay the strongest foundation possible. In the middle of that, our students and their families were facing some pretty significant challenges, and we are still learning to best to respond and to connect them with the support and resources they need. We’ve all had to take some days off just to sleep and regroup so that we can continue on, but we’re getting to a place where it finally feels more routine and sustainable.
Another element of the school that contributed to the emotional exhaustion was our commitment to restorative practices with students. We’d heard from others who have implemented full restorative justice how time-consuming and emotionally taxing it can be, but you never know exactly what it will feel like until you’re in it. We’ve had some breaches in trust and culture among the students that have taken days of conversation and mediation to work through. Ultimately, we still believe it’s what’s best for kids, and we’re seeing the positive outcomes in terms of teaching students self-regulation, conflict resolution, and how to work through difficult times with their peers. That doesn’t mean it’s not still really hard some days to spend hours upon hours facilitating and navigating these conversations and community circles. Our next step is to begin training some of our students as peer mediators and student ambassadors so that they can step in and help support the construction of safe and brave spaces. We believe this will take some of the stress off the staff who’s currently shouldering the entire weight of it.
The last major challenge has been that many of our school structures don’t fit within the existing framework for things like online gradebooks, student scheduling, traditional grade levels (i.e. freshman, sophomore, junior, senior), calculating credits, etc. We’ve built out some systems that we feel work better for kids, but then we have to work backwards to get them to translate into the existing structures, which can be time-consuming. The first quarter has involved a lot of moving pieces logistically, but we’re hopeful that some of those components are now in place and won’t require as much time in the future.
What advice would you give to those people considering opening a school? What do you wish you knew before you started this process?
The most important advice I would give is to continually seek out student voice and feedback from stakeholders. It’s hard to hear that specific structures you invested so much time in may not be working for kids, but it’s imperative to get that feedback so that you can adjust and ensure that you’re constantly driving toward the larger vision and that students are feeling supported along the way. I think our team’s flexibility has been one of our biggest strengths thus far — we’re not afraid to look critically at the work we’re doing and adjust course as needed. We know this is the only way we can truly be responsive to our students and their needs.
Looking back, I wish I’d been able to fully understand or anticipate the weight of the emotional exhaustion that can come with this work so I could have taken better care of myself and my staff. We knew this would be hard and that it would be time-consuming, but was difficult to know what exactly the challenges would look like and what specifically our students would need. Self-care and sustainability has become a major discussion point as we’ve waded farther into the school year, and we’re always working to improve upon the way we embrace this work so that we can be in it for the long haul. I also wish I’d done a better job of creating smaller milestones that led to our larger goals and metrics. Because the day-to-day work can be so tiring at times, I think having smaller, more measurable, and digestible goals for the days and weeks would have helped bring focus and boost morale among both staff and students. This is another element we’re giving a lot of thought to as we move forward.
Read part one: "The Plan."
Read part two: "Building Up."
Photo courtesy of Kari Croft.