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

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.