Finding the Good: Spotlight on ACTIONS and Novak Academy

In the comments of the previous post, there was an unspoken but implicit challenge to find the good in the things around us. So I am kicking off a series of blog posts. They will be scattered as I find good examples to highlight. I am calling the series “Finding the Good”, and I fully believe it is not hard to find as long as we have open eyes and minds.

 

Today I am shining the spotlight on ACTIONS and the Novak Academy. I had an opportunity to visit both of these amazing places last week, and I extend my warm thanks to both Katie Ahsell of ACTIONS and Tony Maltbia of Novak Academy for making the time and opening the doors. Both initiatives are completely different, but they do share some similarities in that they offer alternative support for students who need that little something “more” than what the normal classroom offers.

 

ACTIONS

The Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and ONgoing Support (website) actually serves the district in two distinct ways. The first is more obvious, taking in kids who are in some kind of suspension. The second floor of the Family Information Center (FIC) is reserved for a couple classrooms, which typically are split up between the older kids and the younger kids. But it changes all the time, as you never know who is going to show up. The other function provided by ACTIONS is more of an outreach program, whereby ACTIONS staff go out to other schools to offer support in classrooms, to provide adhoc on-site training or just to actively observe.

There is a lot that I really like about the underlying framework at ACTIONS. One piece is a weighty phrase that needs a little explaining, restorative justice. To borrow from Howard Zehr, “Crime is a wound. Justice should be healing.” My understanding of restorative justice (RJ) is that is seeks to mend what was broken contrasted with a penal system that segregates broken parties into victims and offenders, creating two separate and opposed societies. Since I am a big fan of couching life around the significance of relationships (which can be messy, hard, time-consuming and definitely NOT efficient), I personally see a lot of value in a RJ type of philosophy which also prioritizes relationships.

Another aspect of ACTIONS that tickled me pink is that there is an infusion of (in my opinion) critical social skills; conflict resolution, identifying and expressing feelings, and seeing from another point of view, just to name a few. Ironically, at one point I told Ms. Ahsell that I wish my daughter could go to a school like this. *grin* I hold that the purpose of education is to equip people to succeed at life, and I really like how MLK Jr. stated that schools are to prepare students to function in society. I cannot see that happening without the development of such social skills.

The last characteristic of ACTIONS I wish to bring forward is that of the focus on what they call “parent empowerment”. This is a six-week afterschool series that focuses on family bonding and building trust between student, parents, teachers and staff. Based on anonymized comments I read from participants, it seems to be a big hit. Parents also learn about advocating for their child, in addition to forming a team relationship with the teachers. I wonder what would happen if thousands of families had this opportunity….

I was exceptionally impressed with the dynamic nature of the work carried out at ACTIONS; this is certainly not for the faint of heart. Imagine going to work and not knowing if you were going to spend time with a 7-year-old or 17-year old who started a fight, or traveling to a school for the day.

As we were observing one classroom, the staff person displayed a video of a fight and facilitated a very candid discussion that honored honest, concluding with a reminder that even the students in the video who were standing around, laughing, or recording with their iPhones, were complicit as well, for they did not fulfil their moral obligation to step in and stop the fight. This is the essence of the anti-bullying message, I believe; standing up for what is right does not imply passivity in the face oppression.

 

Novak Academy

The Novak Academy (website) is just down the street from the FIC. Mr. Maltbia makes it clear that even though Novak Academy is an alternative setting for learning, it by no means is easy in any sense of the word; every day at Novak is like two days in “regular” school.

The heightened pace is due in part to the Apex Online learning environment, a classroom packed with computers, students and one facilitator. The other factor is well-trained staff in smaller classrooms. And by smaller classrooms, some felt almost as cramped as a closet. 🙂 It is my understanding that this approach allows the staff to offer an environment that is highly responsive to different styles of learning; one classroom was very hands-on, another was lecture-based supplemented with video, while Apex allows a kind of “go as fast as you can” opportunity.

One of the ramifications of the warp speed velocity is that attendance becomes much more significant, which is reflected in the consequences and occasional rewards. Students actually sign an attendance commitment, and if I recall correctly, missing a few days could get you dropped from the program (I need to look up the specifics when I find the brochure…..).

Mr. Maltbia also laid out some plans they have to utilize more of a project-based learning approach. Their ideas are still in draft form, yet I found them exciting none-the-less purely because I am a big fan of PBL. It will be interesting to see PBL mature at Novak Academy.

One of the things I loved about my visit is an emphasis on understanding the child, trying to figure out what works best for each student; one child may be quiet, another loud, do they both need the same thing?

 

Wrapping up

After visiting ACTIONS and Novak Academy, I had a visit with Dr. Wiegand. I offered praise for these wonderful programs, and thought it was a shame that too few people know about them. So that planted the seed for this article, the discussion on the previous post fertilized that seed.

I will point out that both have been covered in the News-Gazette; Meg Dickinson wrote about ACTIONS in August 2013, and Jodi Heckel covered what was then the Academic Academy in 2008 and 2009.

 

Where have you found good?

 

Nov 26th Special Board Meeting

I got the meeting off TiVo again; unfortunately, my upload connection is crawling along at 23kps (*egads! is this 1996?*), but the video will be posted soon video is now posted. The good news is that the entire meeting was a super brief 37 minutes, and I was able to stop recording after 45 minutes.

A significant portion of the meeting was used for comments (from the public and school board members). It was quite interesting to see that the folks from the girl’s Central Soccer team showed up in numbers and had comments lined up from various folks including parents and students. Very impressive. It was also quite impressive to see how they acknowledged the work already begun by the board and the district administration; you could tell there was a sense of “hey, they heard us!”. 🙂 I thought it was also really cool to hear how student athletes have been very active in serving the community and take their grades very seriously. Board Members spoke very highly of the recently christened Novak Academy and Jamar shared how 9 students will be graduating, filling a void where those students probably would not have been able to graduate in the “normal” system (my words). Jamar also shared some good things going on at Kenwood, including a recent bonfire with weenies and s’mores as a community-building event. Sue Grey introduced a couple students who talked about community service projects and how they decided to raise funds for United Way, presenting a check to a representative of United Way (not Sue Grey).

The next part of the meeting was a presentation about the 3rd-party audit, with Dr. Joe Davis beaming because of the “highest rating” they got. Does anyone else think that the “highest” rating should be something a little more spectacular than “unqualified opinion”? I mean, what if the teachers had “unqualified opinion” stickers they slapped on your homework? Anyway, I Read the rest of this entry »