Through the large windows of her "fishbowl" office, Principal Ann Renker can monitor what's taking place in her two schools—Markishtum Middle and Neah Bay High Schools—located on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in the middle of the Makah Reservation. So when she heard a commotion outside her door, she wasn’t sure what was happening.
Senior Rufus Arnold was picking up a sixth grader while other students were standing around cheering. But instead of a skirmish between students, it was a celebration. “‘He got a B in math,’” yelled Arnold, who had been paired as a Catalyst Corps peer tutor with the sixth grader, Renker remembers. “He's getting a pump from all these high school kids because his grades are improving. How cool do you think that sixth grader felt?”
Arnold—now a freshman at John Hopkins University—was tutoring the student who was having trouble with fractions and mostly just interested in staying eligible to play sports. “I just talked to him like he was a person and helped him out when he needed it,” says Arnold. Their sessions not only included math practice but chats about Arnold’s college plans. “He was really interested in where I was going after high school.”
In Neah Bay, the effort to match high-achieving high school students with struggling middle schoolers—called the Catalyst Corps—was sparked by 2010 state test results. The school’s 10th
graders were scoring above state averages in math and science; blasting away any stereotypes about low achievement among Native American students. But the school was still considered failing by federal education officials because of dismal performance in the middle grades.
While thinking of ways to overcome these challenges, Renker discovered Carol Dweck’s article, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.
” “As soon as I read it, I knew I had found the tool I needed to increase the motivation and performance of my students,” says Renker.
In the article, Dweck, a Stanford University Psychologist, explains that many students have a fixed mindset; they believe that their intelligence and talents are fixed traits. However, when students adopt a growth
mindset, they understand that they can develop and improve their abilities through hard work and dedication. Dweck's research shows that this simple shift in students' thinking can make a dramatic difference in their long-term academic success.
A growth mindset is particularly important for subjects like math and science, where the challenging content requires additional perseverance. When it comes to this content, many students believe that innate talent is the only way to be successful and that you either have “it” or you don’t.
Renker put Dweck’s research into action by creating the Catalyst Corps. By spending time with their older peers who have been successful in school by tackling challenges and persisting when the work is hard, middle school students have role models who demonstrate the power of a growth mindset. They can see themselves in this near-peer: “He’s just like me. If he can do it, I can do it.”
Washington STEM (which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math), provided a grant to help launch the program, which serves as a model for keeping students engaged in math and science. In addition to meeting after school three times a week for half an hour, the students also take STEM-related “learning expeditions,” such as touring a research vessel and visiting the lab at the children’s hospital.
The results show strong improvement. After one year of the program, 70 percent of the middle school buddies showed “growth above typical growth” on the Measures of Academic Progress benchmark assessment, compared to 45 percent of a control group, and not one middle school student was failing a class.
Renker recognizes that the older students nudge their younger charges toward taking schoolwork more seriously in ways that adults never could, by saying things such as “I can’t believe you didn’t do your homework again.”
Obviously, most middle school principals don’t also have high school students on their campuses, but Renker believes that most communities have a neighboring high school and existing resources to implement something similar. Principals, Renker said, should look for community and business partners that can provide engaging and academically inspiring opportunities for students. Renker has developed a “STEM Registry” of local scientists, engineers, and other professionals who are available to visit classrooms to speak on specific STEM-related topics. Teachers can tap into the registry when they need to show students how what they are learning connects to the “real world.”
Renker also tailored the Catalyst Corps so it would satisfy service-learning hours for the high school students and give them something to write about in their college application essays. “If you give everybody what they need out of the program,” she says, “it’s more successful."