Finding a Way to Reach All Students

FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2012 file photo, people arrive on a school bus at Newtown High School for a memorial vigil attended b
FILE - In this Dec. 16, 2012 file photo, people arrive on a school bus at Newtown High School for a memorial vigil attended by President Barack Obama for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. It was a year of storms, of raging winds and rising waters, but also broader turbulence that strained our moorings. 2012 battered us with floods and tempests, and seemed especially dark in its final days. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

This piece was written in collaboration with his former student, Justin Frago

There is an innate human desire to know the intimate details. After hearing about a tragedy we wonder "What happened? Who did it? Why? What could have been done to prevent it?" Particularly heinous acts cause us to scan our surroundings and wonder how to insulate ourselves from similar violence in the future. We seek reassurance from those who even vaguely resemble the perpetrator that they won't behave similarly. Perhaps this explains why in the wake of the Newtown tragedy one month ago, as the press coverage built to a frenzy, one of my former high-school students, Justin Frago, posted to Facebook: "As a person with Asperger syndrome and visual processing issues, I can assure you that I don't plan on killing anyone."

Over the course of the 12 years I worked as a secondary school educator and administrator I met countless awkward, gawky, shy 8th graders who were daunted and overwhelmed by the prospect of high school. I remember the first day in 2008 that Justin, a nervous 8th grade kid, came to check out the Met Sacramento High School with his parents to decide if it would be a good match. Justin and his family described the ways in which his schooling up to that point had been an ordeal: he had struggled to connect with teachers and classmates; he was deeply ashamed of his Asperger syndrome diagnosis, and he did not have clear aspirational goals for the future. I remember the worry on Justin's face as he peered about anxiously at the other visiting students and pointedly asked me what the school was going to make him do.

I met Justin at the Met Sacramento High School, a Big Picture Learning school where I was a teacher and advisor. Our uniquely innovative "one student at a time" approach enabled our staff to connect with Justin and collaborate with him and his parents to personalize his learning experiences. Early in 9th grade, Justin's face quickly transformed from darting eyes and quiet disregard to an incredulous smile as staff and students of all grades warmly welcomed him and engaged him in intimate conversations; he was encouraged to share who he was, what he was passionate about and the learning experiences he wanted to pursue.

I still feel joy when I recall Justin steadily emerging from his isolation to share jokes and have good-natured debates with his advisory mates. Like all adolescents, his progress wasn't a steadily triumphant march; at times he received significant support and accommodations to help him determine and realize his goals. However, I proudly watched Justin develop confidence as he engaged in authentic, real-world learning experiences that fundamentally transformed his self-image and plans for the future. I was giddy with him as he experimented with going on social "dates" with his peers. And I remember the tears that welled up in my eyes when I heard him, as an 11th grader, finally speak to the entire school community about his journey with Asperger syndrome. In June of 2012, I watched Justin walk across the stage at graduation overcome by emotion and trembling as he was honored with a scholarship that would enable him to enroll at California State University, Monterrey Bay, where he has excelled.

I wonder if Adam Lanza's high school experience and his life afterwards could have been different.

I wonder if his high school experience contributed to growing feelings of isolation, alienation and ultimate dissociation from society.

I wonder if Adam Lanza was given the chance to learn about himself and discover what he loved. Was he given support and guidance about how to connect with other people around him in deep and meaningful ways?

I wonder if Nancy Lanza, who ultimately pulled her son out of Newtown's public school system because she was unhappy with the school district's plans for him, might have come to a different conclusion if he had attended a school that personalized his learning experience more effectively.

One month ago, I sat in shocked silence trying to grasp the horror of what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Like so many others around the world, I have spent the time since that day cherishing my family and coping with an irrational anxiety about dropping my kids off at school. I wonder what my children's school experiences will be like and how they might be changed by this one senseless act. I am optimistic that by the time my three-month old son and my three-year old daughter reach high school, it can be improved.

We'll never know what might or could have been for Adam Lanza, but we do know that schools can no longer insulate themselves. As educators, parents and community members, we can no longer accept that students' personal growth is outside the domain of schooling. We must continue to work to transform schools into educational environments where students have the opportunity to engage in learning that is relevant to their unique individual interests and goals. And we must intentionally forge relationships between students, families, educators and members of the community. High schools in particular have an incumbent responsibility to support ALL students in developing into self-reflective, positive, productive, citizens with deeply rooted connections.

Andrew Frishman was an educator at the Met Sacramento High School and in the Big Picture Learning Network of Schools from 2002-2011. He is currently a Doctoral Candidate in the Education Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.