Dr. Jeremiah Newell is the founder and CEO of MAEF Public Charter Schools, which has opened the first public charter school in the state of Alabama. He has previously taught middle and high school, led innovative secondary school models for disconnected youth, directed secondary school turnaround efforts, and served as a Harvard Fellow for the Rhode Island Department of Education.
He believes transforming public education is one of the most important issues of our time. He is committed to being a part of the solution and wants to learn from and partner with colleagues of all backgrounds to use our collective imagination, ingenuity, and perseverance to give young people their best possible start to adulthood.
Daniel: When I was growing up, I remember watching a show Oprah created there compared and contrasted the high school experiences of a black and white teenager living in Illinois. Needless to say the experiences were very different. Simply put the suburban experience had everything. The Chicago experience was lacking. The starkest contrast was the building itself and the Olympic size pool inside the suburban high school. I remember thinking as a kid, why were those two experiences so vastly different? The reality is that things have not changed much since then. Big problem. A lot of it has to do with how schools are funded, but big problems require big solutions. In today's conversation with Dr. Jeremian Newell, we get to some of those solutions. He also shares how he had a similar experience except his experience. He didn't watch on his TV. He was there. He contrasted the school that was in his neighborhood with the school his mom cleaned out in the suburbs and he helped her. But this experience was a gift in that it lit a fire in his belly where he became passionate about education and equity and how we have big problems that require big solutions. He explains in our conversation, some very innovative ways that he approaches this issue. We'll start there at the top of this conversation with Jeremiah.
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Daniel: Today. I'm joined by Dr. Jeremian Newell, the founder and CEO of MAEF Public Charter Schools, which has opened the first public charter school in the state of Alabama. He had previously taught middle and high school led innovative secondary school models for disconnected youth directed secondary school turnaround efforts and served as a Harvard fellow for the Rhode Island Department of Education. Jeremian, welcome to the show. Well, thank you
Daniel: Happy that you're here and I want to start back when you were in the middle school that's a fun age for so many of us, but you told me that's when you became passionate about equity and systemic change and part of that journey includes an interesting story where you were helping out your mom and her job, what happened there?
Jeremian: Oh, absolutely. I really think as an educator, it's important to go back to kind of where the fire in the belly comes. For me it was during that time. So my mom worked multiple jobs. She was a single parent. She raised me by herself and one of the jobs that she had was as a custodian at a private school, a very affluent private school here in the community of mobile Alabama, where I'm from. I would go with her in the evenings because the work was so great that she would always come home so tired. So I would come and help her in the evenings after school to try to get the job done faster so we can both be together.
Jeremian: And what shocked me about this private school is as I would go in the classrooms, empty the trash and vacuum this amazing carpet, I've never seen carpet in any public school I ever attended. Clean the restrooms, meet and talk to the teachers. I was just amazed at what wealth can provide in terms of physical facilities, as well as just kind of the spirit of what it felt like in that school. What stood out to me is I was lucky I won a lottery ticket, so to speak in that I had gotten into the magnet program in our district and was able to go to schools that had high standards that pushed me. They were rigorous. I had good teachers, but it was still nowhere near the level of expectations and opportunity that the affluent private school left for me.
Jeremian: And so the fire in the belly started right there because I saw the differences. Throughout high school, I was vocal in our public schools about educational and equity based upon race and where we grow up in neighborhoods, organized other kids around those voices. Before I knew it, as I was graduating high school, I had determined that my direction should be education and not just the act of teaching, but the act of, of change, as a agent of social change and as an educational change. That's what led me to this place.
Daniel: Thank you for sharing your story there and giving a couple of examples too, of how you expressed your voice and acted as an activist at an early age for the Ruckus Maker, listening. Jeremiah, these are principals and assistant principals, mostly, although we have listeners in other positions within education. How can they think about supporting the youth they serve and helping them express their desire to make the world a more equitable place?
Jeremian: I think as an educator, we have a responsibility to create the holding environment for young people to make change. That doesn't mean directing them to what that change should be. It's literally creating a space where they can learn and grow. That's what I had. I had an opportunity to sit among other young people, share experiences and ask the question, is this good enough? And so I think that school leaders can create these conditions in a couple of ways. First it's by having frequent intentional structures to talk to young people. So whether that be launched with the administrators, whether it's through, advisory councils, and if you do it advisory council structure made sure it isn't just the top kids, the ones with the good grades, the stellar students. Make sure your counsel reflects the diversity of perspectives and performance of the school, because it really is in creating the space for diverse conversation that real change can be created and learning can happen on multiple ends. The other thing is that when young people elevate an issue, make it a priority to help them address it. Don't fix it yourself, enlist them in the process and also don't ignore it. If we do that, we earn currency with young people that creates a learning environment in a school or higher ed or K-12 that can truly be responsive to you.
Daniel: I appreciate what you shared there, the including all voices, not just a top performance students is smart because you want to get a good representation of the whole student body. Just because you can play well in a school setting, that doesn't mean that you necessarily had the best ideas. It just means that you figured out how to play the game. Trying to find the expertise. I remember when the high school that I was a part of the leadership team, one of our students who gave everybody the most trouble. Anybody students, teachers, administrators, this guy gave us trouble and we wanted him to MC a senior sort of sendoff rally. The faculty was, some of the faculty's response was like, no, not, not Demetrius, like no way, like the grades and the attendance. Here's the thing, talk about holding space. He could hold a hole auditorium in the Palm of his hand because he was engaging and he was funny and he was super smart. He expressed that through his ability to tell a story, right. Maybe not turning in homework, but definitely telling stories. And so you miss that if you exclude some kids. The other thing that's so important that I want to highlight for the Ruckus Maker listening is act on it. So when kids, or when staff members or anybody, you serve comes with good ideas or concerns or whatever, and you listen attentively, you take notes or whatever, make sure that you take action on what they're sharing otherwise, what is your word? What are you good for if you're not doing something about it? So thank you, Jeremiah, for sharing that. I'd like to move us to an idea that you told me once, which is a demography, can't be destiny. What do you mean by that?
Jeremian: I think at the end of the day, when we look at how education plays out across not only this country, but internationally for those who have access to wealth, to opportunity. There are opportunities for educational liberation are greater, and that is counter to the human condition. Every single person on this planet has the capacity to learn, to be better on the next day than they were on the day before and yet there is a systemic inequities that demography often leads to folk's, destiny. For me, I was lucky again, enough to get into a magnet school just by sheer lottery, but it should not have been the case. When I look at where my neighbors who didn't get into the program without looking at my cousins from the same neighborhood, same community, where we are. I had the opportunity move on to do great things, to get my doctorate from Harvard.
Jeremian: For some folks, some of my cousins that didn't finish school and are still trying to figure it out. Demography cannot be destiny. I think there are intentional work that educators have to do to make sure that it happens both at the systems level, but we have the greatest control over what happens in our own school building. We have to have those systems and structures in place to make sure that for those who have, or need differently, that we're not educating all kids the same way so that they can overcome any barriers that exist for them. That's our job. If we're not going to do that job, we shouldn't lead buildings.
Daniel: In the bio we mentioned how you founded the first charter in Alabama. I'm wondering if you could expand on that idea of offering students what they need, ,meeting them where they're at. I know you do some very interesting things around holistic experience at your school.
Jeremian: Yes. I went into the charter work, not because I was a charter advocate and in a sense that I believe that charter is necessarily better than any other type of school. I came to the charter work because as a public educator, I was feeling stymied in my ability to create and design because of the bureaucratic systems that were already in place. I started as a tempered radical within the system teaching and leading and trying, and then decided, "Hey, we can do something different." If that means stepping down a little bit, then let's do so. The school that was the first charter in Alabama, that's doing very well here. It's called Excel Day and Evening Academy. It's a school that runs from eight to eight, Monday through Thursday, half day on Friday, it's open to a high school aged students.
Jeremian: We're looking for students who are Ferris Bueller day out, bored, disconnected, disengaged, fallen behind, dropped out for whom the system has also failed. What we've done is designed a supported learning environment, intensive therapeutic counseling competency based learning that allows us to meet where students are and help them move more rapidly in some areas and slower in others, depending on their needs, connect them with internships, post-secondary opportunities, AP classes, and pushing them to reimagine their futures. That work has been just a joy of my life because it means that young people who had given up on the system didn't give up on learning. They didn't give up on opportunity. Didn't give up on a future and that's the work we really get a chance to do on a daily basis. I'm proud that the first charter is focused on that group of young people and that it's in partnership with other schools and other school districts, not in competition.
Daniel: I really appreciate that part of this story because I think a desire to learn and to be creative and to do meaningful work, that's inherent in everybody. Like you said, the system failed them but these students didn't mean they had turned off to learning and that kind of thing. You were able to adjust the system and reimagine what it could look like so that their kids can thrive and you're seeing that.
Jeremian: Absolutely. I think it all still comes back to that sense of where my fire in the belly comes from when I saw learning environments that were different private versus public. I've traveled internationally and seen other systems. It opens your mind to what's possible. I know that given the right conditions, young people can be successful. So that drives me every day, all the way back to that middle school moment with my mom and that private school, how do I create schools that create those conditions for other young people no matter who they are and be vulnerable about the reality that I don't know how to do that, that it actually takes the community. It takes us looting in a sense of place. It takes us engaging students and families in the design. Takes us working a vision but knowing that vision without action is a hallucination so you've got to execute on that vision. It takes those things really driving me. I think that that's what I've learned from my experience with other leaders. And that's what I try to impart with other teachers and leaders in our program.
Daniel: Jeremiah, if you start talking about vision, that's my wheelhouse, we'll turn this into a three hour Epic podcast. You use some quotes too, that I use quite a bit as well. So thank you. Competency based models Important to you and the work that you guys do. So can you unpack a bit what that looks like at your school?
Jeremian: Competency based learning is this notion that instead of deciding grades, based upon numeric calculations, get more granular about what are the skills that students need to be able to do and what's the continuum of those fields. So students are not going to be at the top level on everything at first. What competency based learning at Excel allows us to do across our courses, our elective courses, students were able to see their pathway from where they are. I may be developing, may be emerging to what success looks like and take ownership around that. And teachers have conferences and conversations with students about what does it take to go from where you are to the very next level, to the next level and so on.
Jeremian: Students are able to defend and define their growth in that way. It's a liberating approach to education that really puts the students work in front of them and allow them to really understand where they are. It's not that they just got a 90. What did that mean? What is the relationship between that 90 and what they are? That's where I think education becomes true. Freedom is when the learner can articulate where he or she is going on that trajectory and competency based learning has been a great tool to do that.
Daniel: You are definitely sharing a lot about how schools can reimagine this system and their approach to education. I want to continue with this conversation and dig into how we you've a reimagined roles withing your building right after this break, where we'll pause here for a message from our sponsors.
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Daniel: To learn more about using teach FX, to support your teachers with feedback during COVID visit TeachFx.com/BLBS that's TeachFx.com/BLBS. Alright, and we're back with Dr. Jeremian Newell, the founder and CEO of MAEF Public Charter Schools. We were just talking to him about how he's built the school. He's changed the system to meet the needs of the kids that he serves. Jeremiah, I'd love to know how you've, re-imagined the role of teachers and counselors within your building because you're doing some interesting things there.
Jeremian: When we designed our school, we had to ask the question, what does it take to ensure that young people get the daily support throughout the day support that they need? One role that we reimagine is the role of the traditional school counselor. In many schools there's ratios of one counselor to hundreds of students.
Jeremian: I remember when I was in high school I think I might've seen my counselor once a year for four years and that was to tell me where I am and what my schedule is going to be next year. That had to change for us because in this day and age, young people need so much guidance. They're receiving so much stimulation from so many places through social media and it's just constant. Being able to determine and process and figure out what's real is a serious challenge of our generation, this generation. What we've done is re-imagined the role of the guidance counselor, to the role of the advocate counselor. We use advocate in that original kind of social work context, which is that there is a primary person who is there to know you, to support you, to fight for you, to challenge you.
Jeremian: And you've got a person in your building. We actually use a smaller case management model that allows counselors to be able to see their students on a daily basis, check in with them. We are all at the doors, in the mornings. Teachers were at their doors, as students walk in, and we're constantly looking for images and examples of trauma for experiences with young people that suggest they may be in crisis and we're acting throughout the day to respond, to support, to encourage. What students describe as a change from feeling like there were more of a number that they might've had a teacher who cared about them to a whole system of counselors and therapists and administrators and teachers who know them and not just know their name, but know their stories, know where they're going and encouraging them and pushing them. And that student support system has been the key to us. Seeing our young people who've stopped going to school to all of a sudden getting right back on track and graduating and going on to a four year school. Post-secondary it's that support system. We had to take a step back and say, what does it mean to truly train a child, to develop a person, to create a village and we craft that village through our counseling structures at our school.
Daniel: Earlier you mentioned how it takes a village to raise a child. I know that you are focused on building talent from within the community and that's out of necessity, I believe. Tell us your approach to developing the skill sets of those that work with you.
Jeremian: We're in Mobile, Alabama.It is a great place to raise a family. It's a quiet, supportive community, but it's certainly not a talent hub. We have to do the work ourselves, but I think that's actually the right way to go about school design because education is a communal process. The community has to own that process and that starts with who gets to be in front of kids on a daily basis. Our teachers are credentialed. They're well trained, but most importantly, they're pretty much all from the area. They have lived the lives, walk the streets of the neighborhoods that our children are coming from and that gives so much credibility even to the point where our teachers often know the parents of the students and can call them up and have a real talk. I mean, this is tremedously powerful.
Jeremian: The downside though, is that we are a little bit of a bubble we're insular. We don't get the benefit of learning all those international best practices and ideas that are coming from other cities. What we've done is we've created intentional structures to bring that learning and training into our space. That's why we have half day Fridays. Our teachers, our students leave at 1230, but our teachers stay and we have intentional, common planning time, intentional professional learning throughout the week. Teachers are receiving coaching and feedback on their instruction, on their approach to the conditions for learning. They're getting that feedback from their peer teachers, as well as from instructional coaches full time job is to do that work and to do it in psychologically safe way. It's not about evaluation that person doesn't about that person, coaches and supports and tries to break down barriers. And so what happens is it's like we're all in quote unquote, graduate school on a daily basis. We don't leave to go to higher ed to learn how to teach better. We do the work together and bring in the expertise. We need to push our own thinking. I think is important and it's powerful. It has allowed our teachers to grow from being good, to really excellent. Our kids need extra in order to overcome the challenges that they've had in other schools
Daniel: So much value in what you shared there, the advantages and the disadvantages, starting with the disadvantage being, it could be insular, right? That it's a bubble that blind spots could, could happen. You need to put things into the system so that you enrich the perspectives and do the work so that you don't exist in that bubble. The advantage, seeing the obstacle as the advantage to grow your own people, what an opportunity to be able to say that, look at what we did. I think leaders too often default to, if I have more money, more time or staff, whatever I could solve, problem X, but give that up. You don't have those things. So look it to the people that you serve, equip them to level up. What a gift for your community to say, look at what we've accomplished together. Again, appreciate what you shared there.
Jeremian: And Daniel, the other thing is then be intentional about the structures, because we can't just say we want to fix this problem. We have to design the conditions by which that can happen. One of the things we also do is we have a teaching fellow to teacher, to master teacher development process and PayScale where teachers can create intentional leadership experiences that don't get them out of the classroom full time and that helps people see a pathway to development for themselves. That's still rooted in teaching and learning,
Daniel: Right? Well, just how you said vision without implementation is hallucination. If you don't take action on the things you say, you care about, , that that is a problem as well. So basically you are creating the structure so that you support what guides your work and what you value. This is great stuff. Thank you, Jeremiah. I'd love to hear, if you could put a message around the world for just a day on all school marquees, what would that message say
Jeremian: That we're living in, but I think it's true always. I would put up this message. Education is liberation, but freedom is not justice
Daniel: Jeremiah. If you're building a school from the ground up, you're not limited by any resources, you're only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?
Jeremian: So I believe that the best schools don't require the best, the most amount of money. It's not that that's not where you start from. I think you design a school by first rooting in place, rooting in community, finding the disenfranchise, the disconnected, the folks who, for whom the existing systems have not served, learn from them and list them in the design of the school. You're going to have a better result from that and then be vulnerable enough to let everyone else craft the vision, craft the strategy. Don't try to do it yourself. And once you've got it, then I think is when you call on the money to build that vision in a way that inspires people to walk into that building every day, excited.
Daniel: Jeremian, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of everything we talked about today. What's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember out of everything that we've talked about?
Jeremian: I think the most important thing that a Ruckus Maker has to remember is where the fire in their belly comes from, hold on to that fire and don't let anything stop them from making the change that ignited that fire.
Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel at better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway from the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter @alien earbud and using the #blbs level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.
- Use the fire in your belly to ignite change
- Earn currency with young people for a responsive learning environment
- Vision without action is a hallucination
- Unpacking competency based learning models
- Replace the traditional role of a counselor with intensive therapeutic counseling
- The questions you need to ask for innovative, equitable education
- Education is a communal process
“As an educator, we have a responsibility to create the holding environment for young people to make change. That doesn’t mean directing them to what that change should be. It’s literally creating a space where they can learn and grow.”
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