Bright Ideas: Create 180-Degree Change With Tiny Steps
For a small, private, Christian high school, Seattle Urban Academy has one very unusual entrance requirement. To get in, students have to have “experienced academic failure” at a previous school.
They also have to “want to work through their personal challenges,” and be able to pay a $175 fee each quarter (97 percent of costs are covered by donors).
At their previous high schools, they may have been sitting in the back of the class, disengaged
— if they even went to class. With a student body of 35, at Seattle Urban Academy there is no back of the class. “We care that they are learning," says principal Sharon Higaki Okamoto '76, M.A. '79.
“The huge gift that we want to give them is to equip them so college admission is an option. But just by getting the high school credits, you're not necessarily going to get to the skill level that you need at college.”
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“Nobody here is given a diploma; everyone earns it,” says Sharon Okamoto (center), principal at Seattle Urban Academy, which is part of CRISTA Ministries.
That's why Okamoto keeps a big grade book on her desk — though it's not filled with As, Bs, Cs, and Ds. Instead, it's filled with spreadsheets of numbers in each subject column (algebra, language arts, U.S history) that indicate the number of credits each student has earned in increments of 0.01. Each tiny increment is directly tied to students' mastery of the subject, and not until they demonstrate 80 to 100 percent mastery of all the skills for a given assignment, project, or test are they given credit toward advancing a grade level — or graduating. Teachers track students' exact levels of progress, skill by skill, and their principal can see at a glance exactly how far they have to go.
To enroll, students also have to “take ownership of their academic, social, and spiritual growth.” In leadership class with Nikkita Oliver '08, teacher and student development coordinator, students discuss their passions, goals, and identity, while also planning chapel services.
“Here, people support you in your spiritual life,” says Jessica, a senior in the class. “It's kind of hard to hide your real self at this school because it's so small.” Before she enrolled at SUA as a sophomore, Jessica says she was failing her classes at Franklin High School. Now, after “a 180 with my grades,” she's headed to Whitworth University in the fall, with a scholarship in hand. She hopes to study sociology.
This kind of turnaround, says math teacher Christalyn Grantier '06, happens in part because staff can provide “wrap-around care.”
“I know how they're doing in other teachers' classes,” she says. “I can speak into their lives and help the student come to a solution if they're facing a problem in a different class.”
Meanwhile, on the white board in her classroom, a list of which students have achieved mastery of this week's mathematical challenge keeps incremental academic progress right in view. Academic and personal growth go hand in hand to create “a place of stability and nurture,” as Okamoto describes it.
“It's very evident that God is the one who birthed this school,” she adds. “We're not just graduating youth, but graduating them with purpose and a future.”