Publicity for schools: Understanding the centrality of youth identity

As I have been detailing, I am the newly appointed CEO of Arise Academy Charter High School. A follower if the “entry plan approach” (thank you Dr. Torch Lytle for teaching me this), I have been trying to focus on learning about the school, its design, and the needs and desires of its members.

Unfortunately, hard lessons come early and often. A Philadelphia Inquirer article by Annette John-Hall and soon to be released film made with our students highlight one of our great challenges–creating an appropriate public persona for the school.

At Arise, as I have already learned, our students don’t want to be sold as “needy kids”–they don’t want to be pitied or patronized and they don’t want to be treated like “puppies in the window.” Unfortunately for us and them, this is what we at the school and what members of the media have inadvertently been doing. John-Hall reports:

Arise gets its share of publicity for being the only charter school in the country created for students who have been in the foster-care system.

Which can be a blessing, but is mostly a curse, students say.

“I don’t need sympathy,” senior Zakia Boatwright says.

“They [the media] come here, they treat us like puppies in the window,” adds senior Kalea Baker. “At the end of the day, they make us feel bad.”

We have been caught on TV and at events like our prom (which is absolutely wonderful) selling our work as noble, praise worthy, and more importantly, worthy of donation. It shouldn’t surprise us that our students don’t want to be seen as charity cases, but I doubt this will ever be an easy challenge for our school community or for the media.

We are working through complex issues of community at Arise. Our developing work in student care is as complex as we can design it. We are currently implementing Sandra Bloom’s Sanctuary Model and we are building our foundational design based on the work done at the incredible Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel (which, among other things, emphasizes the development of the whole human. I have written about the leader, Chaim Perri and his belief in the importance of “coherence” before).

For Arise, as well, there is a real conundrum here–the school, if it is to improve its services and reach excellence, must continue to raise funds and attention, but the students are certainly justified to not want to be patronized on the news (even inadvertently and you can judge for yourself here and here).

More specifically, our students are not even all youth in actual “foster care.” All of our students are in the DHS system, but their specific circumstances vary greatly. Any broad brush we try to paint with reduces their individual stories to stereotype.

Ultimately, I believe that it is right for a community to take care of its own. Many of the students at Arise have in fact been through extraordinary challenges and traumas. The fact that they have made it to high school in a system where 75% of youth involved with DHS drop out is a testament to the stunning power and resiliency that our students possess.

I believe in the power and importance of community. The students and staff are the core of the Arise community, but our students are the children of our city and I believe that we all have a responsibility, as members of the community of Philadelphia, to support and nurture those who by virtue of their histories happen to need us. When the students at Arise go out into the world and are powerful, they can, in turn, use their power to support other young people with great need.

I understand that need is sensitive, but the world is only going to give us what we demand. We must demand the community care for Arise and its students without demeaning them, without devaluing their experience, strength and power, and without making them feel like they are charity cases.

Many youth in foster care do have unique challenges and our school is positioned to be a profound support to their growth, health, and capacity to live independently. Arise can help students negotiate complex city systems, we can help them recover from post-traumatic stress, and we can help them negotiate their difficult social and familial relationships. Perhaps most importantly, we can and seek to be a life-long, supportive home for students who have not necessarily had that and who will always have a place of care to return to at Arise.

Over the next several years you will begin to see Arise students playing ever more prominent roles in the city and its leadership. Arise students themselves will determine how we talk about them and if and how we market them. Arise students will tell us all how to talk about them.

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