First Person

Students use basic business concepts to fight teen suicide

It was his first time leading a focus group session, and 17-year-old Alvaro Piedra was nervous.

Patrick Spillman, 17, a student at Aurora's Rangeview High School, sports his "I choose to live, I choose to love" wristband.

“Thanks for coming today,” he read from a prepared script, greeting his schoolmates gathered in a business classroom at Rangeview High School in Aurora. “We’re here to talk about the suicide problem, and we want to talk about stress. What causes you stress?”

Classmate Anquanette Murray-Cawthorn immediately ticked off a list of stressors in her life: “School. Family. Money. Getting into college.”

Others sitting around the table agreed. They also agreed that Rangeview’s well-organized system of student-run clubs largely helped them work through the stress. The whole focus group session took less than 10 minutes, and left Piedra feeling uncertain about what he’d learned.

“I think we need some more in-depth questions,” he concluded. “We need specific questions related to specific groups of people, not just questions you could ask anyone.”

Thus are entrepreneurs made: learning how to target an audience, identify that audience’s greatest perceived needs, then respond with a product to meet those needs. That’s exactly what Piedra and his classmates in Rangeview’s Entrepreneurship and Management class are learning to do.

Marketing meets mental health advocacy

But this is entrepreneurship with a twist. The students at Rangeview and nine other schools across the metro area are taking part in a special program that teaches them to use market-based business principles to achieve social change – in this case, becoming mental health advocates as a means to prevent teenage suicide.

Now in its third year, the FIRE Within program, created by the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, blends training in mental health services for at-risk teens, provided by the Second Wind Fund, with Junior Achievement’s entrepreneurial curriculum.

“Through innovation and entrepreneurism, we inspire young people to find market-based solutions to mental health issues,” said Jess Stohlmann, program manager at the Carson J. Spencer Foundation and one of the mentors to the Rangeview students.

The challenge to students: Come up with a product that is socially responsible, profitable and environmentally conscious. Then create and implement a business plan to market that product.

Needs assessment found bullying a top issue

Last year, 30 Rangeview students in business teacher Kim Reiser’s entrepreneurship class took up the challenge. They began by conducting a needs assessment of the student body, and concluded that bullying was a huge indicator that a teen might be contemplating suicide. They began to look for ways they could reduce bullying, thus potentially lowering the number of suicides.

“We concentrated on cyber bullying,” said Reiser. Her students all became “i-Mentors” through i-SAFE, a publisher of online safety education materials. They created a stylish wristband carrying the message “I Choose to Live, I Choose to Love,” with the i in live and the o in love atop one another to resemble the Greek letter phi. Inside the wristband they included a suicide prevention hotline number.

“We attached awareness cards to those bracelets with statistics about teen suicide, phone numbers and why we were doing this,” said Reiser. Students also created a series of cyber-bullying safety lessons, which they presented to the entire student body once a month.

Cost to produce each bracelet was 18 cents. They sold for $3 apiece. The first order of 250 bracelets sold out in two days.

“Over the course of time, we sold 3,000 bracelets,” Reiser said. With the profits, the youngsters were able to stage a benefit concert to promote suicide prevention and to make a donation to the Second Wind Fund, the Lakewood-based organization dedicated to battling teenage suicide.

Organizers believe the bracelets and related anti-bullying marketing campaign did, in fact, have an impact. A follow-up survey showed 91 percent of students at the school were aware of the campaign, and 74 percent said they felt more confident in their ability to stand up to a bully.

“The face of bullying at that school has really changed,” Stohlmann said. “You see a transformation and a real change in culture when students work on solving the root cause of a problem.”

Different schools, different strategies

The Rangeview project was so successful, it won a $500 Innovation Challenge award from Metro State last year. But other schools participating in the FIRE Within program also came up with successful products.

Students at CEC Middle College in Denver designed a cartoon character they call YABY, or Youth Against Bullying Youth, which will decorate hats, wristbands, water bottles and other items. Teens who complete an anti-bullying curriculum become eligible to purchase the YABY merchandise.

“Kids know they can talk to people who wear stuff with the YABY logo on it,” Stohlmann said.

This year, the program has expanded to 10 campuses, and the students at Rangeview are hoping to repeat the success last year’s class had.

“It’s a whole new group of students, and they’ll need to conduct a fresh needs assessment,” Reiser said. “They may find the root cause of suicide is something other than bullying.”

This fall, students have been conducting surveys, interviewing stakeholders and digging into various indexes such as test scores and dropout rates that could shed light on what issues are especially critical at Rangeview. They’ve just begun a series of planned focus groups. Reiser isn’t sure where the class’s research will lead, but students are already looking at baseball caps as a possible product they can sell.

“My group thought of snap-back caps,” said Patrick Spillman, a member of Reiser’s class. “Someone else suggested dog tags. Someone suggested apps for smart phones. Someone else thought of sunglasses. One way or another, I think we’ll wind up doing something in the fashion sense.”

Lakewood students looking at reality show

Elsewhere, different students are taking different approaches.

The Rangeview wristbands come in all colors and carry a positive message about life. Inside is a suicide prevention hotline number. Photo provided by Carson J. Spencer Foundation.

Phoenix Jackson, who does suicide prevention training at Gateway High School in Aurora, is mentoring marketing students at Lakewood High School in the FIRE Within program. Throughout the fall, they’ve been working on a business plan. After winter break, they’ll attempt to implement it.

“The goal is to equip these children with social entrepreneur skills as well as suicide prevention skills,” said Jackson, a 25-year-old Denver entrepreneur and former Daniels scholar at the University of Denver.

While they’re still undecided on just what product to market, they’re looking at creating an online reality show dealing either with the emotional struggles that can lead a teen to attempt suicide, or with the bereavement of a family that has lost someone to suicide.

“This is their top idea right now, but it’s not really a money-making idea,” Jackson said. “But they have a few others they’re also thinking about.”

First year flop leads to eventual success

The FIRE Within program – the initials stand for Future Innovative Resilient Entrepreneurs – emerged from the work of the Carson J. Spencer Foundation, an organization established in 2005 in memory of Carson J. Spencer, who took his own life in 2004 after struggling with bipolar disorder. His sister, Sally Spencer-Thomas, is the executive director.

Spencer-Thomas formerly taught leadership to college students at Regis University, and she already had a strong connection to Junior Achievement. She wondered if there weren’t a way to put those connections to use.

“We were a small, tiny, volunteer-run organization, and JA is huge,” she said. “We offered to partner with them, and they said sure, let’s give it a go. It was a huge coup for us, because we never would have had access to classrooms the way JA does. But JA has the trust of business teachers in Colorado.”

In its first year, the program, piloted at Green Mountain High School in Jefferson County, was a flop, Spencer-Thomas admits.

“Like a lot of things, it fell on its face its first year. But we tried again. And the next year we started over and the second year was brilliant.”

“Like a lot of things, it fell on its face its first year,” she said. “But we tried again. And the next year we started over and the second year was brilliant.”

Last year, the program scaled up to include Rangeview and CEC Middle College. This year, it’s in 10 schools across the metro area.

Now, thanks to a $500,000 grant received this summer from the Adolph Coors Foundation, Spencer-Thomas sees the program expanding exponentially.

“We’re in 10 schools this year, and we’ll be in 20 schools next year, and 60 the year after that,” she said. “If we can scale up to 60 schools statewide, then we’re in a position to go even farther and we’ll look at regional or national expansion.”

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.