29 Apr Taking A Holistic Approach To Teaching Gives Kids Hope For the Future

Jackson grew up in a single parent household. His father was incarcerated when he was only eight year old and now that he is at the age of eighteen, his dad is still serving time. While in sixth grade Jackson earned an eighty average during his first year at  Mott Hall Bridges Academy.  By the following year, there was a stark difference in Jackson’s behavior; his interest in academics declined significantly and he arrived nearly an hour late on a daily basis. He was defiant towards adults, which to him being removed from class to avoid further disruptions. On one particular occasion, he was sent to the main office and became verbally and physically aggressive when I asked him what was wrong.  He punched the wall and demanded to change his school so he could attend another local middle school with a poor reputation and a significant gang presence, which was two blocks away from the our building.

But I refused to accept this as typical behavior and demanded that he calm down and tell me what was wrong. For nearly 5 minutes I stood quietly waiting for him to respond, until he finally sat down and began to cry. “I need money, mom lost her job, and these gangs keep trying to come for me. I don’t wan to join them and end up in jail or dead.” It was in that moment that I was able to talk to Jackson and ask him what he wanted to pursue as a passion, to which he responded that he wanted to start his own apparel clothing line. That was a pivotal moment.

I made a plan with Jackson to have him participate in a mentoring program that would allowed him to meet with men of color who would serve as positive role models in the absence of his father. I also called on family members and personal friends who were in the fashion industry and take him to weekend trip into the city so he could meet them, along with designers and entrepreneurs in the fashion industry. Every morning, Jackson had to check in with me to make sure that he arrived to school on time and by the afternoon we would discuss how his day went to give him the opportunity to share any difficulties he may have experienced, academically or social-emotionally.

On one occasion I took Jackson to the Barnes and Nobles in Union Square, it was the first time he has ever been in a bookstore. Upon entering the space all he could do is stop and stare before asking, “What is this place?”.  I realized how much we take for granted and how important it is to see beyond the classroom when providing children with life-long experiences that comes from learning. By eighth grade Jackson’s grades were back to an eighty and he was eager to go to high school. In his backpack he carried  a sketchbook we bought at the bookstore, to capture all of his fashion designs, along with the names of designers who inspired him.

Jackson’s story is not an anomaly; in fact it is the story of many of the scholars who attend Mott Hall Bridges Academy. Taking a holistic approach, requires getting to know a child through active listening, understanding their community, and providing resources that go beyond the classroom experiences. It is an expectation that has been incorporated into our school’s culture, primarily because of my background in nursing, which has made it easy for me to understand that children need a safe space with people they can trust and share what they are going through, which then has a positive impact on their overall success. This has been for me, far more important than the measure of standardized test that will never reflect how far a child has come or the potential they have to be great now or in the future.

But focusing on the whole child is necessary and should be the standard across all schools around the world.  To help my team develop holistic practices we have been intentional with taking the following steps:

  1. Teachers take an annual tour throughout Brownsville as reminder of the adversities our scholars face on a daily basis, as result of poverty, violence, and lack of adequate resources.


  1. Professional development is provided annually by our partner organization, Liberty Partnerships, through Medgar Evers College. They also offer our scholars tutoring, art therapy, and grief counseling to meet the needs that exist in our school community.


  1. Scholars who graduate come back to the school to share their stories, which helps to empower the teachers and inspire them to continue doing the work.


  1. Staff members are asked to reflect on their favorite teacher and describe what made that person stand out from the other faculty members. They share this with their assigned groups and list the commonalities they identify during their discussion. This helps to keep teachers grounded and offers a gentle reminder of how their favorite teacher went above beyond the textbook and assessments to ensure they were safe and successful.

Most importantly, I model my expectations to give my staff a clear example of what it looks and feels like to take a holistic approach when educating children. To date, Jackson is now a senior in high school and on his way to a university in Upstate New York. While interning at the Tribeca Film Festival he became interested in photography and film. He is now a freelance photographer and has a goal of pursuing a degree in entrepreneurship to one day open his own studio.

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