The clock on the wall read 6:30 pm on a Thursday evening. Standing at the back of the classroom watching his staff rush to Angel for a group bear hug, Principal Tom Madson knew they had turned the corner.
They had finally reached him.
Madson, the Principal at East Palo Alto Charter School – Phoenix Academy (EPAPA), lives for moments like this. He lives to see the students at his school embrace the opportunities afforded to them by Aspire Public Schools and the process of getting prepared for college.
“We look at it like we are breaking these kids,” Madson said. “When I say that, we mean to break them of their old habits.
“We want them to start thinking about college.”
Angel’s story is typical of many students to come to EPAPA from other districts. More often than not, students like Angel are coming from a background where they are deficient in a great many areas. They are behind the curve academically, emotionally, and socially. The challenge for them is to get back on the right track and start heading towards college.
“When Angel came to us, he had a lot of defects and holes in his skill set,” Madson said.
Because of these deficiencies, Madson and the other staff members made sure Angel was getting the proper support at home. Part of the Aspire Public School model is to reach the parents and get them to buy into the process, to reinforce the support system at home that is developed in the classroom.
“Kids who have come up through our system have bought into our system,” said Michael Berman, Dean of Students at EPAPA. “When a ninth grader shows up new to our school, it is important for us not only to get the student to buy in, but also the parents.
“We’ll go to the mat for these kids, but the parents have to help us out.”
Early attempts to assimilate Angel into the EPAPA culture were unsuccessful. He constantly challenged authority and disrupted the climate of teaching and learning for the other students. Angel was looking for any way to get back to his old school.
“I can tell you that early on Angel was thinking about leaving school and going back to the district school where he came from,” said Madson. “He wanted to return to a school where he wasn’t ever challenged.”
The staff tried many different approaches to reach the freshman without success. Until one afternoon, through a standard avenue for students to maintain their school work, the vein of learning for Angel was tapped.
One of the safe guards to prevent EPAPA students from falling more than a week behind in school work is to attend Thursday Think Tank sessions after school. At the Think Tank, students are required to make up all missed assignments and late work. Sometimes, these students and teachers will be at school as late at 10 or 11 pm.
Angel was a constant participant in the sessions during his first couple of months at EPAPA. Many times he was the last student there.
“For the first three or four weeks Angel would spend most of the time crying and complaining,” Madson recounted. “Eventually, we had to bring his whole family in as a support mechanism.”
Angel’s family made quite a sight at the Thursday sessions. As the youngest member and only boy, Angel had his sisters and parents hovering over him for weeks. His sisters would walk him through math while his parents would sit and help him with other incomplete class work. Despite having his sisters and parents there, little progress seemed to be being made.
This particular Thursday Think Tank started out in typical fashion, with Angel fighting his way through the session – still crying and still threatening to leave the school. Until he finished all his work.
In fact, he was one of the first students to finish that afternoon.
The entire class, realizing a breakthrough had happened, all paused for a moment before giving Angel a standing ovation for his achievement. Not to be outdone, Madson and his staff rushed to Angel and embraced him in a gigantic group bear hug.
“We have a saying here, ‘I think that kid needs a hug’,” Madson said. “A lot of high schoolers don’t like to be hugged.
“But this was the perfect opportunity to give Angel a hug.”
Angel is now passing his college preparatory courses and actively talking about college. Although it is still three and half years away, Madson can see the light at the end of the tunnel for Angel. But he also realizes that there is still a long way to go to get him to the end result.
“We look at it like a triangle,” Madson said. “To get these kids to college, it takes the school, the family and the students to get them there.” With support both at home and school, Angel now has the framework to continue his journey towards graduation and beyond.
He is on the path to college.
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