Students speak twenty-one different native languages at Encina Preparatory School.
Whether they speak Spanish, Arabic or Farsi, every student at this 6-12, high-poverty school has at least one thing in common.
Every day, every student spends third period in a class called Advocacy.
The Advocacy program started five years ago after Encina was flagged as a failing school. Looking for a way to right the ship, teachers and administrators re-designed the entire school day around a model of support for students’ personal and academic success.
ACADEMICS AND EVERYTHING ELSE
Now, five years in, suspensions are down. There’s been an overall drop in all incidents involving student behavior. Advocacy teachers and the school principal say they see a stronger school community. But test scores are still flat and only 51 percent of students graduate on time.
David Vasquez is the director of the Advocacy program at Encina. Despite those numbers, he sees progress. Vasquez points out there are different ways to measure the success of a student.
“There are academic measures, those are pretty much universal,“ says Vasquez. “And then there’s everything else.”
That “everything else” category has a lot of pieces to it. The work of Advocacy takes place in this messy area that’s difficult to quantify.
Beyond grades and test scores, Vasquez makes the case that Advocacy teachers are gauging students' mental, physical and emotional health. And then looking at the growth they experience from their arrival at Encina until graduation.
Given Encina’s student population, that measure of “success” makes sense, says Vasquez.
“We get students – forget academics – they’re not even ready to be in a classroom,” he says.
Once an Advocacy teacher has built a connection with a struggling student over two or three years, Vasquez and his team assess whether the young person is more engaged at school. Even if the student is still behind grade level, Vasquez argues, if they are participating and doing their work “and if we compare it with where they started, it’s a big difference.”
WHAT ADVOCACY LOOKS LIKE
Teacher Michael Zysk stands in the doorway of his classroom as he wraps up Advocacy for the day. Ninth graders filter out. Zysk says goodbye and thanks them for assignments they turn in.
As the last stragglers head out, Zysk starts a conversation with a student who’s feeling tired. Every day after school, she takes care of her newborn brother until her mom gets home from work after midnight. She’s fifteen.
Zysk listens and acknowledges how challenging it is for her to find a balance in her life given her responsibilities outside of school. He offers support.
After talking for ten minutes the student hauls her backpack over her shoulder and heads out the door. Zysk reminds her, “Keep talking to me, okay?”
Zysk observes very few intact families at Encina. And he sees students bringing “tremendous grief” onto campus. Grief from divorce, neglect and abandonment.
From Zysk’s perspective, it would be a mistake to see a student laying their head down on the desk during class and take that as a sign of disrespect.
“If my head is down it's because I’m literally not there — I'm not ready,” he says. “There is no cognitive space on my hard disk right now because of all of the emotional pieces that are dangling like live wires. So, I'm either going to tear the room up or I'm going to withdraw."
And that’s where the work of Advocacy comes in. Brittany Yavrom is a middle school reading specialist who also teaches ninth grade Advocacy. She likens the work of Advocacy to “creating a family on campus.”
“A place where students can feel safe,” says Yavrom. “A place where students know they have someone who wants to see them improve, succeed and make it to graduation.”
The needs of Encina students are all over the map. Yavrom says many students lack basic supplies — like backpacks and pencils — because their families live in poverty. Some of Yavrom’s students are newly arrived refugees. They may need a translator and then help with English language development.
Yavrom points out some students experience neglect and physical and verbal abuse on the home front. She doesn’t have hard numbers but she estimates at least half of her students are coping with trauma or recovering from it.
Whatever chaos students experience off campus, Yavrom notes they are still expected to sit still, pay attention and learn in the classroom.
One of the goals of Advocacy is to meet students where they are. “(And) find a way for them to get to a place where they can focus, where they can learn.”
Yavrom sees class size as the biggest obstacle to building one-on-one relationships with her students. Her Advocacy group started as a dozen sixth graders. Over the next three years, Yavrom’s class mushroomed to 29.
Vasquez expects to see Encina’s test scores and graduation rates improve as the work of Advocacy takes root on campus. But he’s not going to set a clock on it.
When he stepped in to head the school’s Advocacy program five years ago he recalls how someone handed him a wild bundle of papers. He found curriculum for each grade level composed in a series of notes within those pages.
Since then, Vasquez has digitized the curriculum. He says teachers are still tailoring it, in real time, to fit the needs of students at Encina.
Vasquez taught Math before he took on this role. When he wanted to build a math curriculum, he had a set of standards as a foundation.
“Just by looking at the framework for mathematics I could make a whole year for any grade level.”
That framework doesn’t exist for Advocacy. While it was originally based on a model from the San Francisco Coalition of Essential Small Schools, Vasquez says it’s evolved in a unique way to suit Encina.
“There are so many pieces to it, from social and emotional aspects to community building,” he says.
Within the last year, Vasquez says, the conversation among Advocacy teachers has begun to include benchmarks.
Given the lack of standard metrics, how should they measure growth and progress within Advocacy at each grade level?
Vasquez says he and his teachers ask themselves “What are we doing to help students build their academic skills in any classroom?”
Right now, honing those skills is not front and center. But Vasquez is confident Advocacy provides a path in that direction.
“I’d say it’s a stepping stone for us. We need to take care of some things first before we can focus on academics,” explains Vasquez. “That’s what we’ve been doing for the fast five years and we’ve made good progress.”
For now, David Vasquez says, Advocacy will continue as a place of support for students who arrive at school lacking the resources and knowledge they need to succeed.
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