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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.