Not very long ago, I had the pleasure of participating in a Twitter chat regarding “Culturally-Responsive Pedagogy: Promising Practices for African American male students,” written by Dr. Dennisha Murff. During this virtual chat, Murff posed a number of questions to her wide community of educators, and we each responded using 280 characters or less. I am not entirely a fan of these “chats” because they are usually rife with self-promotion and platitudes, but this one felt different for me. With a backdrop of rampant gun violence in our city and a heightened awareness of police brutality and misconduct against Black folk across the country, specifically Black men and boys, this conversation about how we as educators can best serve our African American male students felt timely and urgent.
The sixth question posed by Murff triggered for me a visceral reaction. “What do you believe are promising practices for African American male students?” I have shared before that much of the inspiration behind our holistic approach at Thrival Indy Academy is the pain of loss I experienced throughout the fellowship year I had to establish and build the school’s model. I am from the Far Eastside of Indianapolis, and I dedicated the majority of my career as an educator to that very side of town, so it is not rare for me to be familiar with the names and faces flashing across the breaking news screens, but it never makes it easier. From the first month of the pilot program’s launch in the summer of 2017, there was a constant barrage of news of a friend, former student or family friend being on one end or another of an instance of gun violence. It was important that I channeled the feelings of hopelessness, frustration and anger that I felt toward the systems which brought those young men to their devastating fates into that which was within my locus of control — my school.
At the time, there was not much to the program’s model beyond a partnership with an international travel organization, which reduced the international programming costs, making it possible for our school to cover the international education expenses for our students entirely. While having the opportunity to live and learn in a different country would be impactful for any young person, it was clear to me that this school had to be more than a travel agency; we had an opportunity to truly impact the community far beyond the few students who would claim those coveted seats. For this reason, developing community leaders became a foundational aspect of our school’s mission.
Thrival Indy Academy was introduced as the school that would take students out of their communities and show them the infinite possibilities of the world, but I am not a fan of the deficit view of our people and places which was being communicated through such messaging. Rather, our school’s mission is to bring students into the world in order for them to recognize the infinite possibilities right here in their local communities. For me and my teachers, it was about exposing our students to all the ways in which people around the world advocate for and protect their communities. Before heading overseas, we had to make sure our students had a deep understanding of the assets and needs within their city and neighborhood. We were shaping the frame through which they would perceive these global experiences.
Being the aunt of seven amazingly compassionate, goofy, handsomely Black nephews ranging from 2 to 20 years in age, I have witnessed time and time again the school system dimming, or even destroying, their enthusiasm for learning. When educators approach customs, cultures and communities from a deficit viewpoint, they can absolutely deflate a child's self-confidence and trust in the system overall. After our pilot year, I was pleased with the overall performance of our students, but it didn’t take long for me to be brought down to the reality that, though our students overall increased their grade point averages, our lowest-performing students were all African American. Further, when I stratified the school’s data, I realized all our Black students were in the bottom half of academic performance, with our Black males coming in absolute last. It was and is my responsibility as a leader to make sure my students have every opportunity to reach the highest heights, so we made some changes to our approach.
By implementing organization changes during our second year, such as enrolling all of our students into at least one AP course, engaging our teachers in anti-racism training, strictly enforcing #MathPositive communication among our staff and students, incorporating mindfulness practices and investing in restorative practices and trauma training for my staff, Thrival Indy saw the highest percentage of Black male students pass the math ISTEP+ 10 retake of any other high school in the district. After a successful academic year (and a lots of learning opportunities abroad), Thrival Indy was granted the opportunity to extend our program to a full four-year high school, co-locating with Arlington Middle School. School starts on Aug. 10 for our inaugural class of ninth graders, and we are excited to continue the work of making high quality teaching and learning a possibility for all students.
Find out more about Thrival Indy Academy by following the school in Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (@ThrivalIndy). Visit our YouTube channel to learn more about our approach to education. Join our livestream information sessions via Facebook and YouTube at 12:30 p.m. every Friday in July.
India Hui is the founding school leader and executive director of Thrival Indy Academy, an IPS Innovation High School.