Wise schools use graduates’ insights / Joe Nathan’s Column

Joe Nathan

Two St. Paul Harding Senior High School seniors recently did one of the hardest things in education: They retained the eager, rapt attention of more than 30 middle school students for 40 minutes. Ismael Kamara and Sheriden Groves, themselves Battle Creek Middle School alumni, spoke at Battle Creek’s College Fair Feb. 26.

Their skillful presentations reminded me of a key, sometimes untapped, resource for schools: their graduates.

Kamara and Groves skillfully stressed several points. They:

–Promoted dual-credit classes (high school and college credit), which they’ve taken.

–Urged choosing friends and relationships in which there is support and encouragement for doing well in school.

–Stressed that you can have fun in high school while still making studying and good grades top priorities.

Harding Senior High School senior Ismael Kamara speaks Feb. 26 at Battle Creek Middle School's college fair. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Kathrine Walter, the Battle Creek teacher who coordinated the college fair, told me: “Even after several days, our students are still talking about what they had heard from Kamara and Groves. Our students were so impressed by what these Battle Creek graduates have done.”

Both Groves and Kamara have been offered substantial college scholarships. Both have earned a variety of awards. Kamara, from an immigrant family, will be the first in his family not only to enter college but also to graduate from high school. He hopes to open a business that will help people.

Harding Senior High School senior Sheriden Groves speaks Feb. 26 at Battle Creek Middle School's college fair. (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Groves wants to help change Hollywood. She pointed to problems at the most recent Oscars ceremony. When awards are given, Hollywood sometimes undervalues actors and actresses who are people of color. She wants to become a screenwriter, promoting more diverse roles and characters.

Other schools have also learned the value of listening to graduates. Last summer the Center for School Change, where I work, did a workshop for college, district and charter educators that began with a panel of high school graduates. Some of the most powerful moments occurred when students thanked specific educators “for helping convince me that I could do more than I thought possible.”

Some years ago, I worked at a district school in St. Paul that periodically surveyed graduates. We asked about the value of various high school experiences and what they had done after high school. We also asked what graduates saw as the school’s major strengths and shortcomings.

Grads identified many strengths. However, many of them urged the school to include more writing in the curriculum. They’d found that whether as part of college or in jobs, writing was very useful. They urged high school teachers to include more of it in their assignments.

Grading writing assignments, especially if a teacher works with 100-150 students per day, can be challenging. So the school agreed to spread writing assignments throughout classes. It also offered some professional development for faculty, as some teachers did not have much experience helping students improve their writing.

Later surveys found that the graduates were pleased with how well they had been prepared to write.

Whether it’s a pair of graduates, like Groves and Kamara, a panel or a survey, a school’s graduates can offer valuable insights. Wise schools listen to and learn from their graduates.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, please comment below.