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Men of Character: The Vertus Preceptors

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By Amanda Avallone, Content Manager for Next Generation Learning Challenges

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You can't learn until you build character, which is based on relationships. A new app on social emotional learning is not going to cut it; students can and will survive a lot if they connect with adults, but we as educators have not fully exploited the power of relationships in this work.  
--Dr. Leigh McGuigan, co-founder of Vertus High School, Rochester, NY

Few educators in my professional network are surprised by the growing body of research showing that positive relationships with adults support wellbeing and success, especially among students of color and students from low-income households. This is something teachers have felt in their bones for a long time. It's what prompted an early mentor of mine to say, "You can be competent if you teach your content, but you won't be a great teacher until you teach your students--all of them."

That advice, equal parts daunting and inspiring, stayed with me throughout my teaching career, but knowing all of my students well enough to do that was definitely a "stretch goal" for me. When we consider the many roles educators play, the volume of skills and content they are held accountable to teach, and, especially at the secondary levels, the sheer number of students they work with, time to build those personal relationships can often get squeezed out of the day. That's one of the reasons that Leigh McGuigan, along with other school leaders and learning designers, are adopting innovative staffing solutions, ones that include new roles for adults: as guides, mentors, and role models.

When Leigh and her co-founder launched Vertus High School in 2014 to support boys to become men of character, they augmented the mostly white teaching staff with the innovative role of the Preceptor. "Many of our kids live in a violent and troubled world, and the Preceptors are the first line of support," she explains. "Most of our students do not have enough male role models. The Preceptors--half of our educational staff--are an example of what a black man or Latino man can be."

For this edition of Friday Focus: Practitioner's Guide to Next Gen Learning, I spoke to Leigh, the CEO and co-founder, and James Daniels, the Lead Preceptor, at Vertus, an NGLC school in Rochester, NY, about this non-traditional position. In particular, they described:

  • What a Preceptor is and does

  • The results for student learning and character development
  • Observations to share with the field

Qualitatively Different

That's the phrase Leigh uses to define the role of Preceptor. "Ultimately, all adults are responsible for all students, but in most high schools, teachers are responsible for academic learning. Teachers also try to fill in the cracks: 'I teach Chemistry and I also try to connect with my students on the side.' In a lot of advisory models, the advisors see students for 20 minutes a day or a couple of times a week." But with a Preceptor, she explains, "You are 100 percent responsible for the success of your team of (16-20) boys. Preceptors get them to school, make sure they are doing their work, teach them how to ask for help, how to be leaders of character."

"You have to be part activist, part dad, part social justice crusader, and you have to love the kids you work with," says James. He served as a Preceptor for a team of freshmen in Vertus's inaugural year and will soon watch those young men walk across the stage with the school's first graduating class. James, who will become the school's director of student services starting next fall, came to Vertus with years of experience working with youth. Though he served as a firefighter for a time, he missed the time spent with kids.

"When I read about Vertus--education for those who need it most--I had to get involved," he says. "There's this blanket idea in a lot of schools that you are going to learn this way, do things this way. Some of our students came in at a third grade reading level. Vertus said 'we are going to diligently go after these students and help them reach graduation.'"

Leigh echoes his description of their incoming students' needs: "Aside from the normal conditions of poverty, many come to us with a 1.4 GPA. They've failed almost everything in the past and have a history of poor attendance. They start off very disengaged."

"It's the hardest job I've ever had and the most rewarding," says James. "Some students need a lot of help, but maybe that's because the school system let them down. Vertus takes the time to invest in the staff to do this work, so our young men know that no matter what they do or say, the Preceptor will always love them and help them."

Some Days You Feel Like You Can Change the World

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When asked to provide a typical "day in the life" of a Preceptor, James chuckles. "It's hard to define a start and end time. Sometimes I am out at night looking for a student who ran away. Today I got a call at 6:00 a.m. about a student whose family was evicted, so I was out looking for him before school."

Most days, however, begin with James picking up young men from the bus stop on his way to Vertus. He lives in the same ward as many of the students, and the ride in the car gives him a "chance to talk like a father to a son or an uncle to a nephew. Not about school, but more like, 'You look sleepy. Did you play that video game? What happened to your shoes?'" Sometimes, he reports, these conversations touch on more serious issues as well: "the typical situations where you would want to have a man to talk to--well, that's me."

Once James arrives at Vertus, he leads a morning meeting, where students learn about what is happening that day. They also affirm the school's culture and values--courage, responsibility, and leadership--by reciting the Vertus creed, which ends with a resounding, "We are...Vertus men!"

Throughout the day, Preceptors assist the young men on their team in a number of ways. In the lower high school grades, they collect students' cell phones and walk them to their classes. For all grade levels, they play a key role in supporting learning. Vertus uses Edgenuity, an online instructional platform, to deliver personalized, blended learning year round. Instead of a traditional "one teacher, one classroom" model, Vertus's learning labs might include two or three teachers and the same number of Preceptors, all working together.

Because the learning platform allows educators to track students' progress moment by moment, Preceptors can make sure students stay focused and on track. The instructional program is self-paced, but James sees his role as "trying to help them make as much progress as possible" every day. Preceptors often provide one-on-one help with academic content, similar to the role of a teacher's aide, and they also serve as the primary liaison with their team's families, calling parents every two weeks.

Character and Scholarship 

If the excitement in James's voice is any indication, however, the best part of every day is character seminar. It is here that young men develop what he calls "the character and social intelligence that will have an impact on their college success, careers, and everything after that." At the lower level, James explains, Preceptors deliver a structured character development program. For example, the young men learn about fixed vs. growth mindsets and experience the Stanford marshmallow test of willpower and delayed gratification.

This year, James's team is made up of seniors, so his character seminar is organized as more of a "book study that is discussion based and scholarly." He has learned that, in general, "they don't like to read, and it's difficult to get them to." Even so, he reports that this year his group read Richard Wright's novel Native Son, James Baldwin's "Letter to My Nephew," and Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, as well as writings by Seneca and other philosophers. James's goal is for each young man to be well rounded, to "find some literature they will want to run with," and be exposed to "the things they'll need to talk and write about in college."

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Stories (and Data) of Success

When it comes to evidence of student success, Leigh says, "The data speak for themselves--more than two years' growth in NWEA (math and reading assessments) for every year they are with us." The school also had an attendance rate of 87 percent last year. In addition, 100 percent of students who are at Vertus for four or five years are expected to graduate. Leigh sees this as especially significant because students in New York must pass five Regents Exams in order to graduate from high school. "The Regents are hard," she says, "and we can take issue with certain tests or certain questions. But I don't really quarrel with the basic idea of high stakes exit exams. They drive high standards. We couldn't have done it without the Preceptors."

Both educators can also point to numerous individual success stories. Leigh recalls, for example, students "who dropped out and came back, went to jail and came back, had a baby and came back." Even a young man she identifies as a "top contender for valedictorian" claimed as a freshman that he couldn't read. "Well, he could," she explains, "but we had to help him believe that he could."

James remembers the challenges he faced during his first year as Preceptor: "We don't cherry pick our students at Vertus, and some of the behaviors made me ask, 'what have I gotten myself into?' They wouldn't use Edgenuity, they wouldn't go to class, they had poor attendance." In spite of the rocky start, James reports that those same students, now seniors, are "having amazing conversations about DNA and current events from New York Times articles. I find them reading ahead, borrowing books, and talking to classmates about what they're reading." He feels especially pleased when he overhears members of his team repeat the sayings he's taught them about the value of time, including his trademark, "Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

What's more, he reports that "many students have already obtained all their credits and passed all their Regents; the remainder have obtained all their credits and are now studying for their last Regents. I think that's pretty good with four weeks to spare."

What We've Learned from our "First Batch of Pancakes"

Both Leigh and James acknowledge that Vertus is still a young school, and neither one claims that they have everything figured out. Still, Leigh shared a few incisive observations. "Some folks have the impression that there are well-meaning white people parachuting into communities of color and telling them what to do," she says. Working with Preceptors has convinced her that growing leaders, like James, from within the community has great potential. "I knew it was going to be challenging to fill the school with teachers who look like the kids. The minority teacher workforce is thin in many places, so go fishing in a pond that has more fish."

James's advice is for education to harness the kind of creativity that is valued in other professions. "In the education industry, we have stuck to the same format and assumed this is the way it needs to be," he says. "Now is the time. We have the technology; we can figure out the best way to educate everyone. It may sound like a cliche, but whether you are in the cities or rural areas, it's a civil right to be able to read and write and think critically. We should look at every creative solution to get all students ready for the 21st century."

Resources

  • The Vertus "Fast Facts" document encompasses the four pillars of the program, student demographic information, and the Vertus creed.

  • This Blazer Ceremony flyer invites parents and the community to celebrate one of the most important rites of passage for young men at Vertus: earning the red blazer for commitment to courage, leadership, and responsibility.

  • This brief video introduction to Vertus provides information on the role of Preceptor, including interviews with Leigh and James.

  • The Minority Student Achievement Network's "Student/Teacher Relationship Resources for Educators" offers an overview and curated list of links to research studies and resources for building positive student-teacher relationships.


Photos, used with permission from Vertus High School, from top:

  • Preceptor James Daniels helping a Vertus High School student with his tie

  • Preceptor James Daniels (back row, center) and his team of young men

  • Vertus students who are ready may attend the local community college to earn specialized career certifications (such as in Precision Tooling) or for academic coursework.

 

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