Story 16 of 20: Equity means ALL students, ALL schools by Rachel Parnell and Aubrie Tossmann

For story #16 in our series of 20 stories celebrating 20 years of Umoja, we asked Rachel Parnell, Social Emotional Learning Specialist, to share how Umoja is using improvement science to increase our impact on the students who need our programs the most. 

Most of us are afraid of the question: What do you do least well? We’re happy to celebrate success, tout our accomplishments, and even acknowledge some weakness. Two years ago, Umoja applied for the Building Equitable Learning Environments Grant through the Raikes Foundation based in Seattle, Washington. The premise of the grant was to answer the question of who we serve the least well and then engage in a network (known as BELEN) of ten organizations across the country who are all working on an equity challenge and tackling it through improvement science.

Rachel Parnell, Social Emotional Learning Specialist at Phillips Academy High School, joined the Umoja BELEN team last year. Rachel began the team’s testing protocol at Gage Park High School and then carried the testing to a broader scale at Phillips Academy High School. The Umoja BELEN Team identified early on that 12th grade students with a grade point average of 2.0 and below needed to be our focus They are the students who have the least postsecondary options when it comes time to graduate and have likely struggled in their high school career for a variety of reasons. Through the grant, we are exploring how we can design structures that better support this group of students and create more equitable learning spaces. Our aim is to increase the number of 12th-grade students who are choosing a postsecondary pathway that is relevant and supportive of their long-term success.    

At BELEN’s fall 2017 convening in Denver, the Umoja BELEN Team came up with a protocol to test Umoja’s signature Academic Check-In model and how well it can support 12th grade students in their postsecondary planning process.  Rachel consulted with Ms. Sykes, who is the Senior Seminar teacher at Gage Park High School, and she named a student who needed some support. Rachel met with the student, B*, and they began the process. While their initial interaction was fairly relaxed, Rachel asked B to identify a couple of goals regarding B’s postsecondary planning. Her main goal? Be the first person in her family to start a postsecondary program and finish it. 

We met with Rachel earlier this year to ask her about her experience on the BELEN team and she shared some thoughts on the power of adults showing up for students in education spaces. Read on for her update on the progress working with B on reaching her goal...

“She really didn’t expect me to come back [after our first meeting]. In fact, she didn’t want to talk much when I came back that second week, but we ended up discussing a few things that were going on with her personally. She was visibly upset and not really into the idea of me being back in the school with her. I asked her to share what was going on. It was the anniversary of her cousin’s death, so she began to open up to me about their relationship. I challenged her to act on her goals for her cousin, for herself. These are things that she wants for her family and I am there for her to help her get through each step. 

Since then, our “tests” developed from ‘these are your steps to reach your goal’ to her doing things on her own and adding in her own steps. There is a sense of accomplishment. She would come in to meet with me and be like ‘well, you told me to research Kendall College, but I actually called and applied.’ It is a beautiful thing for me to see someone at the beginning of our 90-day cycle to now. She is a student who needed that added connection; she didn’t have a direction for what was next for her after high school. Through this testing process and the goals we set together, she now has some direction and her confidence continues to build weekly! At test five or six, she shared with me ‘I didn’t think I would be this far in my process. I had not even thought about it and now I actually have this plan.’ 

In BELEN, there was a conversation about race and educating students and that you have to be a certain race to relate to certain students. Through my work at Umoja, I’ve mostly been in African American spaces. This was one of the first students that I’ve worked with that was not an African American student and it crystalized what I said at our network convening: It doesn't matter what you look like. It is your intention and the energy that you give these students. For someone like B*, all she needed was for someone to believe in her, to believe that what she wanted was possible, and to guide her in getting through those steps. 

You (adults in these spaces) don’t think about the impact that you have. You just think about how you want this student to do well. You are not thinking about yourself. I might have made B want something that she didn’t think was attainable. I’m just thinking ‘Alright. You need to have a postsecondary plan. I’m going to learn something about you and what makes you work, what you like, what you see for your future and I’m going to help you get there.’ She was going to do all the heavy lifting. She was going to build her own future. I didn’t see my role in any of that, but by working with B throughout this 90-day testing cycle, I am pushing her to be excellent without actually pushing her. She knows I am holding her accountable.

She gets excited to show me how much she’s worked on when it comes to reaching her postsecondary plan goals. 

Completed FAFSA? Yep! 

Did she add her colleges? Yep! 

Did she decide between Kennedy, King, and Kendall? Yep! 

Planned a college visit? Yep! 

Be an influence to other members of her family? YEP!

The steps that we are taking with B have inspired her brother to go to school. By helping her, I help her help her brother. This is an awesome thing and I don’t think about it as a big, incredible thing very often. I think about it as something that I just do. I wouldn’t have this opportunity without BELEN. By being a part of this network, I’ve been able to work with B on this level and these very little steps are adding up to make a big difference. 

* name has been changed