It's uncommon to encounter an advocate for narrowing one's choices, but fewer options can sometimes be what's called for, according to Menlo-Atherton High School's Jenna Carson, the Aspiration Advocates Program coordinator for the Sequoia Union High School District.
Ms. Carson has been working for more than 20 years at M-A, helping students succeed despite behavioral problems and/or low academic skills, and she was recognized recently by the San Mateo County School Boards Association with the Emily Garfield Award, describing Ms. Carson as "one of the most gifted and committed teachers on the (M-A) campus."
As to choices, Ms. Carson told the Almanac, a typical well-prepared M-A freshman from the Menlo Park City School District has approximately one choice in crafting a class schedule: "Which foreign language elective will I take?" The rest of the schedule is largely predetermined, leaving these students with "the freedom to be ninth-graders," she said.
Contrast that with the daily choices confronting an unprepared, struggling at-risk freshman from East Palo Alto: "'Should I go to class? Should I do my homework? Should I go to the library or the park?' Everybody needs choices, but it is overwhelming for some of these kids," Ms. Carson said. "A 14-year-old's brain is not developed for that. It's a relief to not have to make a choice, to know that people are watching and paying attention and that it matters whether you go to class and stay in school."
Ms. Carson has three children of her own with her husband Craig Carson, a physical education teacher at M-A. She has a master's degree in education policy from Stanford University.
She routinely has a caseload of about 60 students and is free to go in and out of their classrooms during the day. Many of her students will text her, which she said is fine, given her round-the-clock personality. She said she is a better parent for having worked with at-risk students, and a better teacher in being a parent. "I don't mind worlds colliding," she said.
Buying into a vision
Poverty is a grinding reality for her students, with needs that include food, clothing, school supplies, transportation, maybe even shelter, she said. M-A can provide almost all of that, she said. "I want to remove the excuses by giving these kids their basic needs. If you give them all that stuff, they can get to school and they have to do it. Keep putting the ball back in their court."
Her motto, "No excuses, no regrets," dates from her high school days, she said. At-risk students are adept at blaming others for their problems, she said. Her goal: shift the blame to the student, which is a tough nut because they have to acknowledge their own shortcomings, she said.
"If you are really going to be held accountable, that's scary. It's easy to blame someone else," Ms. Carson said. "If they can own it, then they're empowered to do more the next time. ... then the power is in their own hands."
Students must keep at it all day every day, she said. That's an extraordinary challenge that most people she knows don't have to face, she added. The path of least resistance for her students may be to misbehave or give up. "In the end," she said, "you have to have the cojones to make it all the way," a metaphor she said she has used with students.
It doesn't always work out. "It's heartbreaking when you give them what they need, but emotionally, they're not ready to learn," she said. "That's really frustrating. I don't really have an answer for that."
For her, for her students' adult mentors ● each student has one ● and for all the adults on campus who connect with these students, the challenge is to restructure a vision of school for kids who have hated school, who have hated the people, the concept, everything, she said.
"I want them to feel like M-A is the best place that they can be. But they have to find value in the school as a whole," she said. "M-A says, 'We believe you can do it,' (but) you have to believe you can do it."
A few times a year, Ms. Carson will spend $900 on a catered lunch for the mentors and students to sit around and talk. The scene is "decorated and looks nice," and sets the tone, she said.
"These kids may not have anyone to talk to," she said. "Whether you become best friends or not, (talking with a caring adult) is a healthy part of growing up."