I want you to meet Jay, a 21-year-old single mother with a story that begins in a dropout factory. When she was a junior at Riverview Gardens High School in North Saint Louis County, Jay was pushed out for being over-aged and under-credited. She tells me that since leaving school without a diploma was expected and surprisingly easy, she did not ask questions when school staff told her she was no longer welcome there, she just left.
After a short time in the Job Corps in Chicago, Jay returned to Saint Louis to live with her Mother and daughter. The reality that she was running out of time to earn a high school diploma and achieve her dream of becoming a registered nurse led her to Shearwater High School, a charter school in Saint Louis that aims to reengage disconnected youth and graduate each one ready for college, so that he or she is ready for work and life.
The majority of the students that Shearwater serves have dropped out of school. Many because they were pregnant, some because they became homeless, others because they were dealing with sick family members, and some, like Jay, who left because their situation seemed hopeless.
Jay found a home at Shearwater, but she will be the first to tell you that she didn't make it easy on Shearwater's staff. She says that at times she was disrespectful and untrusting, making her a challenging student to have around. She spent her first year or so at Shearwater in and out of trouble. She told me in a recent interview that what made her finally become the student she is today (the one that met requirements to graduate in December, passed all her End of Course exams, a Constitution test, and the GED) was the realization that no matter how hard she pushed, the Shearwater staff was never going to give up on her. They were never going to lower their expectations for her, and they were going to hold fast to their promise to prepare her for college and a successful career.
The Shearwater staff is doing what others, including Jay's previous teachers and administration, thought was impossible. They're convincing kids who have no reason to trust adults to trust again. Taking children who have experienced things most of can't imagine and getting them to focus on creating something better for themselves. Shearwater is identifying children who were thrown away by broken systems, and giving them the grit and determination to metaphorically clean themselves off and try again.
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the students and staff who show up at Shearwater day after day to do this hard work. However, on this Thanksgiving, the thing that struck me the most is how thankful I felt when I left the school. Thankful that the students who fill the classrooms are still willing to put their trust in adults after so many have failed them. Thankful that the adults who have been chosen to work there are creating a model that is worthy of the trust of its students. But above all else, thankful that this school that Paul Tough would surely call Missouri's gritty, "whatever it takes" model for educating Missouri's hardest to reach students exists for others to study, replicate and improve.