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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.