Shamel sitting down with a student

As a network serving predominantly Black and Latinx students, it is critical that we reflect on the role race plays in our cities, our schools, and our country. You can read Achievement First Co-CEO and Superintendent Doug McCurry’s powerful posts on the subject here and here

In 2019, Achievement First adopted new core values, the first of which is Lead for Racial Equity. We describe that value as follows:

AF exists to address the legacy of racism in education. We look at ourselves first. We reflect and talk about the role race plays in our work, experiences, and decisions. We strive to be constantly anti-racist in our words and actions.

This is the first in a series of posts about how Achievement First is living this value. Today, we’re focusing on the work of Team Student Experience, which supports schools to lead for racial equity by ensuring academic excellence and an exceptional student experience. We sat down with Shamel Duncan, Director of Team Student Experience, to learn more about the team’s work.

How is AF approaching student experience?

Student Experience is a team that provides on the ground support to schools—that might look like training deans to train teachers on key skills—on all things school culture. In strengthening our core practices, updating them, and rolling them out, we’re capturing bright spots, codifying, and sharing out across the AF network. We want to make sure the work we’re doing captures a sense of belief and belonging and joy, and that we’re building strong relationships with students and families.

Tell us about some examples of strong student experience you’ve seen at schools.

I’m thinking of a lot of examples. You can see it as soon as you walk into the school, if you notice what might at first seem like small things. I was at AF Bushwick Middle, trying to find my way, and a student came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m so and so, are you a new teacher? You walked down this hallway twice, and I thought you may be lost.” Then, he helped me get where I was going. At the same school, I was observing a class, and a student says to me, “This is what I’m focusing on, this is where I am in the lesson.” All of that shows me the kids really care about their school. It means they’re excited to be where they are, and they’re excited for me to know what they’re learning.

I also see it at AF East New York Middle, where students host a Multi-Cultural Diversity Day fashion show every year. They wanted to create a day where everyone had an opportunity to represent their culture while expressing their identity. They created a petition, drafted a proposal, made a plan, and just ran with it. The student council took it on with pleasure and excitement, and that’s what we want to see across all of our schools.

What does your team try to keep front and center?

Kids need to know that adults care about them AND that they will hold them accountable. We also know that if kids view class as a place they hate going to, they’re not going to be successful. We want to ensure teachers are asking themselves, “How do I own some part of that and create a warm welcoming classroom where they want to be? How do I create a place where, if they don’t want to be there, they feel comfortable saying that to me so that we can figure out what we want to shift? What’s in my locus of control?” If you ask those types of questions, you’re able to uncover a lot of issues that you hadn’t been able to address in the past and get to the root cause.

What do we want student experience at AF to feel like for kids?

We’re focusing on mindset work, reflecting on our own practices and how they impact scholars. The mindset of a teacher years ago, if a student was misbehaving, might have been a “that’s unacceptable, not in my house” style of teaching. Today, we want “that’s unacceptable, not in my house, AND let me understand why this is coming out so that I can better support you.” An expectation that the whole team has is that we want students to love coming to school because they’re learning a lot, they’re challenged every day, and they’re also having fun in the process. We want them to feel like they’re building strong relationships with other students and adults and to feel ownership of what they’re doing that will influence what they carry with them after high school.

What do we want student experience to feel like for teachers, and for the school overall?

We’ve made a lot of shifts to how we’re preparing our teachers, who are setting up our students to succeed. Our teachers are doing strong, rigorous work, and we want to see them really prepared to lead fun, exciting, engaging lessons. When they’re having fun, they’re being creative with executing lessons, and that leads to more imagination on the kids’ end. Their engagement means kids are automatically bought in and walk away with a really positive experience. We want teachers to prioritize three things: how students feel when in class, prioritize the instruction, and—whether the student gets an A, B, or C—they are proud of the grade they received because they put their all into it. The foundation we’re laying right now is so that within the next five years, every classroom in every school feels this way.

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