Young. Gifted. Black. I remember as a youth hearing others speak of me as an intellectual but completely rough around the edges. The truth was, I was a high risk student by all measures – I grew up in an impoverished one-parent household in a rough inner city neighborhood where some temptations swallowed other boys like me. I survived, but by all measures I probably shouldn’t be where I am today – excelling as a successful father, husband, and educator. How did I do it?
It wasn’t until I met Mr. Belcher – a global studies teacher – that I began to see my own strengths and future. He started having conversations with me at random points in my day and encouraged me on a level that was beyond Global Studies. He spoke to me about my future, my gifts, my purpose, pushing through and being more open-minded. He became one of my anchors in high school and turned me in a direction where I could see my potential as a boy of color with ambitions I didn’t even know I had yet.
Charlotte Lab School is full of Mr. Belchers. In a growing, nurturing academic environment that includes a diverse population, one that we want to truly represent the city of Charlotte, our students need Mr. Belchers. Through our advisory program we continuously work on traits of personal development modeled after Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab. In the past, traits like – Purpose, Self Control, Grit and Optimism – weren’t intentionally taught before in most schools. One of the most common anecdotes I share at open houses to prospective parents is about how our school has shifted to focus on these traits because they are not always “picked up” along the way. I ask, “How many of us know someone that struggles to push through as as adult? Who might not know the best way to organize themselves?” The hands that come up are always accompanied by laughter because these are the traits that were not explicitly taught 20-25 years ago. Not everyone had a Mr. Belcher to catch them in transition to ask if they were planning ahead for the week since he noticed there were 3 basketballs games and a slew of tests coming up. What drives our advisory program is providing many opportunities for our students to feel as if they have an advocate, life coach, mentor and teacher in their corner. Outside of our required time in our students’ schedule for Advisory, Advisors are consistently meeting with grade-level teams, speaking to parents, outside providers and even the students during the other times where “advisory” is not scheduled. It is through this consistent level of support that our advisors build the support for our students and ensure that they are supported.
Outside of our structured advisory program, there are two other ways our students embed themselves into our school culture. Our teachers spend time getting to know students through student conferencing. Through the use of the workshop model, teachers conference with students on their work which adds a vital component to class that is designed to be more personal. During this time, students share where they are in an assignment as well as troubleshoot with their teacher in a one-on-one setting or a small-group setting. There is an exchange of ideas, thoughts through open-ended questions that set the stage for a deeper connection to occur between teacher and student. Student conferencing makes learning personal, individualized and human. In many of our classes, working in groups no longer has the “surprise factor” that might exist in other schools. At Charlotte Lab Schools, group projects are the norm and are no longer a rare occurrence that is often found in other settings. Students are constantly pushed to collaborate, work with others from different backgrounds and get to know other students who might have different abilities. It is through collaboration, that there is a student exchange of conversation, stories, anecdotes, jokes and smiles that we want to encourage. Students enjoy working in groups and the long-term impact of this is that they experience age-appropriate conflict and begin to troubleshoot those moments under the direction of a trusted person in their life, their teacher, guidance counselor, administrator or a guidance counselor. Our teachers utilize strategies aligned with Restorative Justice in order to approach all kinds of conflict with peers. It is through restorative practices that teachers can do two things: build relationships and help students grow socially and emotionally. Strategies that are rooted in high-interest topics and cover “real life” tend to connect more with our student body. Helping students understand that conflict exists all around us and everyday in our life, helps to normalize the topic and encourages them that this is something we all are dealing with constantly.
If I had to sum up what makes students feel a high sense of belonging in a more diverse school, I’d say it’s our ability to listen. We intentionally set norms in all parts of our school environment and constantly show our incoming students in the Fall that having conversations about topics and troubleshooting together does not always lead to a consequence. We are very transparent with students in the beginning to immediately build trust and empower vulnerability from the students who have never experienced the “Lab way” to those who have been with us since 2015. Many of our students come to us with their own stories of how they got to Lab. It is by actively getting to know these stories that we become better equipped to support them in other areas. Many of our students don’t feel heard in other aspects of their life and have felt like their thoughts, feelings and/or ideas may not have mattered before. But with us, they do.