Life of a Fellow: Jesse

I have never been the academic type. If you asked anybody when I was in school the last thing they would have guessed was that my first real job out of college would be in the field of education, yet here I am. Coming into my Fellowship year I had only the highest of expectations for 12 Plus and I have not been disappointed in the slightest. When I wrote my first blog post (in late September), I was still in the honeymoon phase of this job. The honeymoon is over now, however, and the reality of the job has since set in. The fun parts of being a 12 Plus Fellow are at times overshadowed by the seriousness of the situation, but this also helps us understand why our work is so important. I am still piecing together what exactly the concept of changing a school’s culture means. But I am learning that what 12 Plus does very well is help bring a school closer together.

Within these last five years all three schools of our partner schools have been transformed by the introduction of the PLUS Center, 12 Plus staff, and our message. Although 12 Plus is very much a team with the same mission, each site must adapt to their school’s individual environment, their school’s needs, and their school’s students. We are currently in our second year at Hill Freedman, our newest partner school.  This, combined with the fact that this is Hill Freedman’s first year with a senior class and in a new building, means that we have struggled at times to find our identity. However, from the beginning of Fellows Training, we were told that 12 Plus is a “learning organization.” The process of learning and growth is not always an easy one, which is probably much of the reason that it is so rewarding when we find moments of success.

For me, some of these moments have come about through opportunities to engage with the school outside of the usual 12 Plus programming. Hill-Freedman World Academy was founded on the principles of diversity and inclusion, and one of the unique characteristics of our school is the large population of students with complex support needs (CSN). Within this population, there are many students who are on the autism spectrum. Although CSN students and general education students go to school in the same building, there are not often opportunities for meaningful interactions between the two groups. Lunches in the PLUS Center have served as a time and space for these communities to come together. But lunches are only half an hour long, and only portions of the student body can be in the PLUS Center at any given time.

Prompted by a discussion about how they are treated at school, five CSN students decided to tackle this culture of exclusion. They decided to use Black History Month as the platform to advocate for disability rights.  At the Black History Month assembly later this month, they will be addressing the entire student body, advocating for their own rights to be respected by the rest of the school community. For the last month and a half, I have had the privilege of helping these students write their speeches and practice performing them.  As a person who has struggled with learning disabilities myself, I can – to a much lesser degree – appreciate the silent struggle that students with learning differences must go through during school. Public speaking can be an incredibly scary experience, especially when you fear your peers’ scrutiny about how you speak, read, and look. Having the opportunity to witness their bravery and strength, as well as their growth, has been remarkable.

But the opportunity that I am most grateful for this year has been the opportunity to serve as the Assistant Coach for the Varsity Boys Basketball Team. My involvement with the team began rather innocently, I just watched while the boys had open gyms before the season began. A few sessions in I started to play in the open gyms with them. Players began to pop their heads into the PLUS Center every day, and when I’d see them in the hallways they would go out of their way to dap me up.

This season was a difficult one in many respects. For many kids on the team, it was their first time playing organized basketball, and it was the first time playing at the varsity level for everybody. For the first month of the season, we battled through losses, beginning the season 0-7. As time went on and the students continued to put in hard work together, they grew closer as a team. The devotion was most noticeable over winter break, when almost every kid on the team – even those on the practice squad – came into school for our optional workouts. This hard work and dedication from the members of the team finally paid off on January 12th against Benjamin Rush. After winning this first game, two more wins quickly followed. The highlight of my season was when the Head Coach and I got to tell our team that we had made it to the playoffs. It is a testament to a team that battled through adversity; a team that grew closer together over the course of a season instead of falling apart after early failure. I can say from experience that overcoming the losing culture on a team is not easy, but it is a valuable experience that can never be taken away from these 17 young men.

I think that there is a misconception that 12 Plus is only in schools to help enhance the academic parts of students’ high school experiences, and this is simply untrue. Sure, the majority of our work revolves around tutoring, mentoring, and advising students to prepare them for success in the classroom, but to change a school’s culture you must go beyond just this. A student is more than just their score on a test or their grade in a class, and to acknowledge this is vitally important in the work we do. If we only focus on academics then we miss much of who our students are, and we miss an opportunity to relate to our students outside the classroom. 

12 Plus is here to help our students find successful post-secondary paths out of high school. For some this means school, for some this means work, and for some this means enlisting in military service. The ultimate goal is far away and scary to think about when you are a kid, and this is why it is important to emphasize the journey and not the end result. If you work hard and prepare accordingly, then you are increasing your odds of success no matter what it is that you want to do. I have never told a student that their path will be an easy one, but it is a moving moment when a child learns that if they work hard for the things they want, good things will happen. As Joel Embiid has been showing to all of Philadelphia this year, I have seen it as my job to teach kids to trust the process; to believe that the hard work that they put in today will benefit them in the long run.


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