Making Meaning Out of It All: The Work of Re-connecting the Disconnected with Love (#newarkontherise)

Several weeks ago, the week before break, I had the pleasure of attending GradNation with a group of youth leaders from Newark Leadership Academy and I learned about or at least was reminded of a great educational truth.

GradNation is a national project sponsored by Washington D.C. based, America’s Promise Alliance. They are convening 100 conferences and ongoing work streams across the nation to focus system-level attention on young people who are often called disconnected or “opportunity” youth. In Newark, NJ, we have nearly 4,000 young people that are high-school-age but have not attained a diploma and are not actively engaged in high school. Nationally, there are roughly 6.7 million of these same young people (this number, drawn from Belfield, Levin, and Rosen (2012), includes young people up to age 24, a slightly larger population than the 5.6 million estimate I heard at GradNation). Belfield et al estimate the cost to our national economy at 1.56 trillion dollars in taxpayer burden alone: 

The economic potential of an opportunity youth cohort is very large. Considered over the full lifetime of
a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to
$1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion. These costs ‘roll over’ each
year because each year brings a new cohort of opportunity youth.

GradNation Newark was a one day conference that brought together dozens of service providers from across the city along with groups of young people from YouthBuild Newark, FastTrack Academy, and our school, Newark Leadership Academy, as well as young people representing the Newark Trust’s youth leadership program, and Project RISE. These organizations, schools, and providers are working ferociously, although largely without coordination, to reverse a steadily growing dropout crisis.

The youth panel, particularly, was deeply compelling. What was amazing about the youth panel at GradNation, though, was that you didn’t have to listen particularly hard to get the point. Up and down the row, each of them told us how they had not had the love and unconditional support they needed to succeed in school. When the moderator asked what brought them back and made it possible to re-engage, they were equally unanimous. Every single young person said that in their current program there was at least one and sometimes even just one adult who cared about them, believed in their potential, and worked through all of their challenges to get to know the real young person inside. Someone who believed in them. Someone who cared about their future. Someone who loves them still.

That’s it. That’s the BIG SECRET. LOVE. LOVE!!!!! 

I’m not afraid of love.

A former principal who worked for me in Philly told me that I shouldn’t tell my students that I love them because they have been abandoned so many times before and I am just going to break their hearts again. I disagree more than I could possibly capture here.

One of the easiest and most important things I can give is love.

Dennis, one of two NLA students on the panel, didn’t make it sound that hard. He talked about how much it matters to him that every morning, when he comes through the door, I am happy to see him. This is the secret, the hidden educational need, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to deliver: show I’m happy when I really am happy. I am fired up when Dennis comes through the door. I’m interested in him, his successes, his challenges, and all the fun, hard, sad, triumphant craziness that comes in between.

And it’s not just Dennis. It’s not just the currently talkative, or just the currently hardworking students I’m excited to see. The ones who make me crazy today–my angry, traumatized, and escalated young people–are going to be healthy some day if we, the adults who are serving them and caring about them, just stick with them. Their experiences will add depth and wisdom to our own and, as I tell the young people all the time, we will ALL be stronger for our commitment to each other.

I believe that we are truly blessed to make our living in a human, social organization that both connects us to those around us and encourages us to learn from each other. We are lucky to have an extended family as complex, intricate, and beautiful as ours.

Here’s the ask

Briana Buie, an NLA student attending the event with me, stood up during the Q&A with my colleague and friend Chekemma Thomas (@chekemma), our keynote speaker and the CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). Briana told the assemblage that is was our “responsibility to break down the walls” our young people have built to protect themselves. “Brick-by-brick, if necessary,” she said.

It’s our responsibility to break through to our young people and help them transform. Not to provide some learning experiences should a young person happen to be interested, but to break down the wall they themselves have created and connect to the real young people inside.

Even at NLA I frequently hear that everything would be easier if only “all our young people really wanted to be here. IF they really chose this.”

It is certainly true that one of the keys to success in a school like ours is free choice, but Briana suggests to us that we maybe shouldn’t make it such an easy choice for our young people to be disengaged. She is putting the responsibility on the broad universe of adults who fill up her world. Briana knows that we have already failed her and her peers many times before our young people really begin to inhabit the labels we have given them.

We may call them disconnected and we may want to believe that this is a choice that they make, but the honest truth of the matter is that at every step of the way, we adults have profoundly failed. More than five and a half million young people, nearly 4,000 in Newark, didn’t wake up one day and say “I hope I end up disconnected from school and from meaningful connection to whole, healthy adults.” They also didn’t wake up hoping to spend time in institutions that demeaned them, categorized them, judged them, and actively pushed them out.

We are obviously hoping to be different. Kaila, our second NLA youth panel member, said that our community building work (which we call Mental Toughness in the YouthBuild way): “taught me that there should be no failure, we should let no one fall.” If we taught her that, we better believe it ourselves.

Youth panelist after youth panelist at GradNation was incredibly clear, it only took one caring adult–one adult who saw past all of their “stuff”, one adult who refused to be pushed away, one adult who worked away at that wall, brick by brick, until that adult was face to face with a beautiful, courageous, gifted, traumatized, young person. Having named this enormous responsibility, I want to go back to what Dennis said, it’s not that hard to be happy to see them when they come through the door. It’s not that much of an ask for me to be my best self for my young people. It’s not that much of an ask for any of us–Let’s be a community of love.



A short history of the field of design theory and methods courtesy of Beckman and Barry (2007)

Beckman and Barry’s (2007) Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedding Design Thinking (2007is a great resource for understanding the history and current direction of design theory. The authors describe three broad stages of development that represent a move from design as a top-down process of cause and effect analysis and linear improvement to design as an organic, iterative, and fundamentally democratic process by which communities organize to make meaning together.

This first phase of design theories and methods was focused on optimization and systematic problem solving. Beckman and Barry describe this approach as rooted in “machine thinking” and focused on rigid methods for breaking down complex tasks or operations into discrete problems and solving each one in a logical and linear order. In these practices, designers were often laboratory scientists, studying problems from afar, deconstructing and then reconstructing them for greater perceived effectiveness. Designers believed that their own aesthetic and practical understandings could effectively determine both utility and significance in design processes and methods. This early phase of design practice was premised on the modernist belief in the unifying progress of humanity towards a more ideal society. Designers were seen as heroic figures of the modern world, raising society to a more ideal state (Buchanan, 1998) and designers themselves generally believed that part of their role was providing a unifying vision of progress that would drive society along the path of human improvement (Beckman & Barry, 2007).

This initial understanding of design theory as a process by which a few experts solve the problems of society was strongly repudiated in its second wave. Buchanan (1998), a design theorist and historian, asserts that the modernist “unifying” vision is oppressive as it imposes one definition of utility and significance for all people regardless of culture or context (Beckman & Barry, 2007). Buchanan (1998) writes:

No one possesses all of the knowledge and wisdom required to understand and act responsibly in this world. We need diversity and alternative perspectives to keep alive the ongoing inquiry into ordering, disordering, and reordering that is the central enterprise of human culture. We need the diversity of many personal visions to avoid entrapment in narrow thinking. (p. 16)


Defining Design and Design Thinking

My academic research (and Claire’s as well – @ClaireYates3) over the last few years has focused on the interaction between the literature of design thinking and the literature from the field of education that supports the design and creation of new schools.

Today I am going to start by taking a quick look at the field of what is called Design Thinking. In upcoming posts I am going review a bunch of literature and also do some sorting and aggregating of the field in general.

First, my long and inclusive definition of design thinking:

Design thinking is a way of approaching planning using a non-linear process of learning and experimentation that engages community members and their needs in formulating problems and creating purposeful solutions that are rooted in utility and significance and adapt over time.

The design thinking approach is an iterative process of knowledge building and knowledge using. It is frequently described in four non-linear stages—discovery, creation, modeling, implementation/production (Ackoff, Magidson, & Addison, 2006; Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007). In addition, many authors identify a fifth state focused on organizational learning and evolutionary change although some see this as simply a continuation of the iterative process of learning, creating, learning more, and recreating (Brown, 2010; Beckman & Barry, 2007; Owen, 2007). (more…)

Blog Refresh! School for Real Design Blog Take 2

I am pleased to announce that School For Real is getting a bit of a refresh. We are tweaking the look (still in progress) with a focus on separating out the different themes we explore and giving school design itself its due place in both the metaphoric and visual heart of what we do.

The impetus for this in part the return of some wayward writers, but it is also a long needed change that reflects the current state of our organization which is really a loose consultancy and think tank.

I am excited to share, on a personal and school design note, that I have spent the past year working for Building21, a start-up, competency-based high school model opening as a Philadelphia School District school partnership in the fall of 2014. Their work is extremely interesting and represents a significant advancement in the field. I will write more about it in upcoming posts. In the meantime, check out the building21 blog, which is in itself both interesting and important. See for example, the thoughtful work they are doing with the language of competency and mastery.

Finally, I am very excited to share the research on school design I have been doing over the past five years. I am going to publish an overview of design and reviews of a wide  range of school design texts. I hope it will prove a useful tool for school designers and researchers.

Send us your thoughts!


A Eulogy for Mikal from Alexine Fleck, his English teacher at Community College

I have copied it here for you exactly as I received it from Ms. Fleck. I think the similar themes across everyone who knew him are evident. Mikal was an excellent human being and a roll model for all of us. 

Hi Gabe,
Here is the eulogy I wrote for Mikal. I read it at the memorial we held at CCP last week. I hope it brings you as much comfort as your’s brought me.
How do you write a eulogy for a man like Mikal? As his friends told me on Monday night, Mikal was such an amazing person that the stories wash over you and there is simply no way to capture all of the ways he was wonderful and maddening and inspirational.

I could start by trying to describe Mikal, but how do you describe the wind when you know it best by the way it changes the world around it? I could begin by telling you how I met Mikal, but as we all know, you don’t really “meet” someone like Mikal in the same way that you don’t really “meet” the wind. Mikal engulfed people with affection, optimism, high expectations, and an astounding amount of generosity. Mikal was a force of nature and we are all better for being swept up in his wake.

Mikal came to me because he was having some trouble with his writing. He was supposed to write three sentences in response to some question, so I asked him to read me what he had. Scrolling down his iPhone, Mikal probably rattled off about twelve sentences before I asked him, “is there going to be a period in here at some point?” That’s where we started: with periods, the most basic way to divide one idea off from the next one. Because he’s so smart, Mikal didn’t have much trouble figuring out how to punctuate his sentences and, after we reviewed the rules, he announced that he was going to come to me every week for help. Later, he enrolled in my writing class. (more…)

For my friend Mikal, an inspiration, who died far far too soon

Rest in Peace my friend, please know that the world was better for you having been here.

Please know that you changed my life. That you taught me important things about being a grownup, a guide, a teacher, a leader, and a friend.

Please know for sure, that I am not the only one. Know that your friends, classmates, peers, teachers–that all of us–were blessed to have known you. You were a young man who could push us to our limits and far beyond.

I cannot speak to the specifics of your passing, which was a tragic accident regardless of the details, but I can speak to your life and in your honor, try to speak the truths, and the be the man, I think you would want me to be.

Before I begin telling your tale my friend, I want you to know that Val gave birth to a beautiful baby girl this week, and that we are giving her the Hebrew name Michaela so that we will always remember and be inspired by you and our time together. Val told Rue and Nate that you passed–you were always so awesome with my kids. It was an extreme week in our house full of sadness and joy, but in my family’s traditions it is considered lucky to bring a baby to a funeral to help carry on the spirit of the the departed.

I also ask your friends, teachers, and supporters to please feel free to post their love and remembrances as well (feel free to send them to me if you have any trouble posting or just want me to do it). Click on the title to view the post with Mikal’s friend’s comments. 


Dear Mikal,

(A letter that will now only be sent to the winds and be carried only in the hearts of those who come after).

It is certainly no secret that you and I love each other and I think anyone who knows us knows that it is tough love. You have often told guests about how we would yell at each in my office. In answer to my, “Mikal, you are yelling at me,” you shouted back, “Well if you are going to be in my support network, you are going to have to deal with me!” I know I am not the only member of your team to take some heat. (more…)

I Resign from Arise

Dear friends and colleagues, It is with sadness that I share that I stepped down from my position as CEO of Arise Academy Charter High School in June.

I want to say that my students are incredible and I believe in them. I was truly blessed and privileged to have been able to spend time with them, learn from and with them, and share in their lives. There was never a day, not one day, that I went to work sorry to be serving the young people we served. Fighting for the students I worked with at Arise has been one of the great honors of my life.

I also want to thank and appreciate the incredible hard work being done by so many in the human service field supporting youth in care. I particularly want to note and point readers to the work done by the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN to locals), the PolicyLab at the Children’s Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (their child welfare research is excellent), and the Support Center for Child Advocates.

I wish Arise Academy and its students the best and I hope deeply and  I will continue to advocate strongly for our city, state, and nation to invest real resources youth in care need to be supported and successful.

Thank you for your support.