Press Release

Re-engaged Voices: Formerly Struggling Students Tell Their Stories

WASHINGTON (February 10, 2016) Today, The Education Trust released “Catching Butterflies,” a narrative chronicling the experiences of five formerly struggling high school students who disengaged from their education in traditional schools and were drawn back in by educators in settings ranging from an alternative school to a juvenile detention facility.

Catching Butterflies” shares student experiences with the intent of helping educators in both traditional and alternative settings reflect on how their approaches to teaching and instructional practices can affect students’ motivation, their beliefs about themselves as learners, and their preparation for the world outside the classroom.

“Student perspectives, especially from those who have struggled academically, are a largely untapped resource for improving schools,” said series author Brooke Haycock, senior playwright-researcher at Ed Trust. “These are the students most keenly aware of where our schools and systems need strengthening and what it takes to support students from struggle to success.”

The narrative also serves as a reminder of the valuable lessons that educators in alternative settings have to teach the field about how to support struggling students. It highlights the powerful role that educators play in engaging students and supporting their academic growth, regardless of their educational histories or what may be going on in their lives outside of school.

The educators profiled in this piece are intent on expanding students’ notions of who they can be and what they are capable of achieving. “It’s a mindset,” the principal of the high school in the juvenile detention facility reflected about helping students reimagine themselves. “We have to change that mindset. And the only way we do it is by expos¬ing them, offering them new experiences and insight into who they can become.”

Core among strategies shared by educators in these successful alternative settings — one too frequently missed in traditional settings — is simply listening to students to find out why school is not working, and asking them what they need to succeed. Other strategies highlighted include:

  • Having both social-emotional and academic supports in place for each student from day one;
  • Growing students’ academic skills at an accelerated pace to ensure they are able to graduate within a reasonable timeframe; and
  • Fostering leadership skills and acknowledging budding independence by assigning jobs to students and giving them progressively more responsibility in the classroom, e.g., leading classroom discussions and allowing them to accelerate at their own pace.

These strategies are designed to keep students motivated and engaged, and by all accounts they are working. “I’ve never skipped in this school,” shared a student at the alternative school. “I never even thought about it; I don’t need to. But, if I was to try, my teacher would find me … they make sure you’re not falling behind. They don’t want you to fail.”

Catching Butterflies” is the fourth installment of Ed Trust’s Echoes from the Gap series.


About Echoes from the Gap

The Echoes from the Gap series showcases student stories anchored in observations, interviews, and lessons from students and educators in high-poverty high schools, both those serving students well and those struggling to do so. The first edition, “The Writing on the Hall,” released in January 2014, examines the frequent disconnect between the inspirational inscriptions on high school hallways and the other messages educators send students through what they say — and what they do.

The second piece, “View From the Lighthouse,” from May 2014, highlights the sharpened perspectives of students who transferred from low- to high-performing schools on what makes the difference in student success.

The third, “Butterflies in the Hallway,” released in November 2014, looks behind the numbers to describe in detail the often gradual process of school disengagement. This new installment, “Catching Butterflies,” offers educators an opportunity to reimagine schools as places of hope and systemic support for all students.