From Dropping Out to Graduating: The Power of Seeing Students for Who They Are

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When Blade, a recent graduate of the North Dakota Youth Correctional Center (YCC), was asked about what he wants others to know about him, his answer was straightforward.

“My individuality,” he says. “I am my own person.”

Before coming to YCC, Blade was a high school drop-out, despite being a pretty average student. But during his time at YCC, he earned his GED and was, according to Principal Michelle Pfaff, “one of the best students to have in class.”

Helping students like Blade recognize what they’re capable of – and learn to advocate for themselves as learners – is central to Pfaff’s work and the work of all YCC teachers and staff.

“He came in as a skeptic,” says Pfaff. “He didn’t think he’d ever get his GED, that he wasn’t able to learn. He wanted to just get on his motorcycle and ride; he felt like there was nothing for him.”

Many of Pfaff’s students are like Blade – they’ve made some poor choices in the past or been victims of their circumstances; they’ve felt frustrated or left behind. The structures in place at YCC provides Pfaff and her staff the opportunity to see their students “at their best, at their baseline. They’re clean and sober. They’re sleeping in a warm bed. They have clean clothes and three meals a day.”

But ultimately for Pfaff, her students are just like any other learner in North Dakota.

“The kids that we serve have got a target painted on their back, a stigma from having to go to the correctional center,” Pfaff says. “But there’s kids like ours in every school. Every kid we serve, they’re not coming from Venus. They’re coming from all across the state. They’re normal kids. They can succeed and blow past what you might think they’re capable of, just by changing the way you do things.”

Strong relationships support the development of self-advocacy.

Students like Blade benefit from a strong focus on relationship-building between students and staff. There’s a concerted effort on the part of their teachers to pursue hands-on learning opportunities whenever possible. Teachers frequently collaborate across subjects on projects that allow students to practice more than one standard. As a member of the initiative in North Dakota to personalize learning, Pfaff and her staff are hoping to share what they’ve learned about cultivating student voice, opportunities for reflection and trust-building with other districts, and to learn new strategies in turn.

“The students we serve need resiliency skills,” says Dr. Penny Veit-Hetletved, director of education at the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “They need to learn how to self-advocate to be successful beyond what’s happened to them, to define what happens to them next.”

Being proactive about communicating with struggling students.

For Blade, he recognizes the role his teachers have played in “pushing me to do the right thing and continue my education.”

“Every student has the capability to the rise to the occasion,” says Pfaff, who, along with her staff, recognizes the needs her students have to pause and reflect and, sometimes, to make mistakes or need the space to work through challenging feelings. Open lines of communication between teachers, staff and counselors provide a variety of opportunities for students to reach out to someone they trust, and for teachers to communicate with each other about what they’re observing and when a student might need to be approached and help offered. While in a traditional setting these students might only speak with the principal or school counselor as a consequence of their actions, YCC staff are proactive.

“When they’re feeling escalated or frustrated, they can take some time with us. We’re able to calm them down or help them figure out what’s bothering them so they can move forward with their day,” Pfaff says. “And if they’re not having a good day, that’s okay. Maybe they just need time to go back to their cottage and refresh. Tomorrow’s a new day – every day is a fresh start.”