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Dropout Prevention Begins with Self-Awareness

With a passion for helping the underdog, Dr. Cynthia Knight has fervently persevered in creating a nonprofit organization to provide quality educational experiences for the most-needy of Iowa’s residents–the high school dropout.

From classroom experiences ranging from large school districts: Des Moines, Johnston and Ankeny, Christian education at Dowling Catholic High School to smaller schools in Iowa: East Marshall, West Marshall to a seven-year stint at the Iowa Department of Education, Dr. Knight listened, learned, and developed a program, Jordahl Academy. “This program has successfully helped students earn a high school diploma who have been told there is no money, they don’t have time to finish, or there are no more options available for them through traditional school environments,” explained Knight. Jordahl Academy, named in honor of Dr. Knight’s friend and mentor, Don Jordahl, who was instrumental in launching this work, has spent the last 9 years changing lives. “We connect students with highly qualified Iowa licensed teachers who are passionate about providing hope to these young people,” she added.

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“One of the best tools we have for our work is Thrively. We use Thrively twofold: to get to know our students’ interests/career plans so we can create a learning pathway that is personalized and project-based and to let students explore their interests through the online tools Thrively provides.” When students are engaged and can see the personal relevance in what they are learning, they are more likely to invest their time and see the direct impact their new skills have on their daily and future lives. “100% of our graduates are employed or seeking further education through the trades/college. We are proud of these young people,” Knight added.

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With a servant’s heart, Dr. Knight funds this work through a tea room named after her grandmothers, Ivadel Ruth’s Tea Room, and a consignment shop, Backroom Bargains, and she runs with her husband. She also takes donations from Don Jordahl’s supporters.

More than 4,000 Iowa students have dropped out each year for the past three years. Dr. Knight created another option for these young people. She calls it HOPE.

Highly gifted students need social-emotional support and the confidence to share their real aspirations

Portola Middle School’s Highly Gifted Magnet is unique because it is the only highly gifted middle school in LAUSD. What’s not unique in the uneasiness that many students feel at this critical juncture in their development. Middle school can cause anxiety for some students who feel that they don’t “fit in” or who are not as emotionally mature as their peers.

Teacher Mia Kang explains, “We often forget that just because a young learner is advanced beyond their years intellectually, they may not be so socially and emotionally. Research and experience prove the veracity of this. My students need explicit instruction on SEL skill development. I began using Thrively to help students expand their range of skills, and what I discovered was that they were very forthcoming about their fears and angst. I also got to see that many of them are profoundly beyond their years in their SEL development. There were extraordinary responses to Thrively prompts that showed how important it is for family, learners, school, and teachers to work together to support SEL.”

“A lot of highly-gifted students are focused and driven but not necessarily inspired by traditional academics. After gathering data from the Thrively interests survey, I found that many of my students wanted to be chefs, pilots, actors, and graphic designers,” explained Kang.

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Understandably, in the classroom, time is limited and the urgency of preparing every child for a fulfilling future is unrelenting. Mia Kang acknowledges this but insists that addressing the social-emotional needs of highly gifted students is foundational to both their wellbeing and their academic success. That approach is also essential in developing their voice and making their school experience relevant.

 “I have used other SEL resources, those with massive binders, unengaging resources, and unrealistic implementation plans. When I discovered Thrively, I was thrilled because not only are the lessons highly engaging but the invitation to reflect is included in every learner experience. Thrively is an integral aspect of my daily instructional practice,” shared Kang. “I started using it half-way through the school year. After reading some of the responses, I know that I would have changed so much of the way that I approached my learners had I used it from the beginning of the year.”

Sometimes we forget that our GATE students have highly specialized needs, and we can default to emphasizing a course of study that is singular in focus. When we give our students a chance to discover and share their strengths, aspirations, and ideas, we can help them see their studies related to their values and dreams. Our highly gifted students can then see that academic achievement is not an end in itself, but a means of achieving a future of their choosing. 

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Thrively appreciates the opportunity to collaborate with Portola Middle School as they strive to ensure that every child’s social-emotional needs are supported.

Student agency and student empowerment

Most educators would agree that this is the dual aim of our individual and collective efforts. How then do we move from aspiration to action? If students are to become agentive, we need to create the conditions for their authentic voices to emerge. Authenticity is the outcome of being one’s true self, which results from self-awareness. Students feel safe to express their authentic selves when they believe that they are known and valued.

The core resource for transforming our schools into vibrant learning environments brimming with curiosity and creativity is sitting right in front of us: our students. When we value students as partners with us, we unleash limitlessness potential. Recognizing this, the principal at a high school in East Los Angeles posed a question: “What would happen if we empowered our students not just as learners but as learning facilitators?

The principal, Dr. Faatiai, at the Engineering and Technology Academy on the Esteban E. Torres High School campus launched a two-day professional development workshop for twenty-five students who would learn how to facilitate their Advisory classes. The students were a heterogeneous group comprised of both student body leadership and those who struggle with self-management. At the end of the workshop, all students were ready to lead an Advisory grounded by an authentic desire to know every student’s strengths and aspirations in the school.

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Students took Thrively’s Strengths Assessment during the workshop, which was designed for young people to increase self-awareness and surface their top five of twenty-three strengths. After the assessment, students discovered themselves and saw their peers in a new light. The facilitator began to call out each strength and asked students to stand and say, “Like me!” when they heard one of their top five strengths. The facilitator began, “One of my strengths is compassion.” Three students stood up and said, “Like me!” “One of my strengths is creativity!” Five students stood up: “Like me! With each new affirmation, new bonds were formed.

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When the twenty-three strengths were shared, students were asked to reflect. An 11th-grade student said, “It’s pretty hard to tease a kid who has compassion as a strength.” One of the more tentative students in the workshop added: “Individually, our strengths make us awesome, but when we put our strengths together, we’re unstoppable!”

Live Oak Elementary School educators do not leave student empowerment to chance

When students feel known and valued, they feel safe speaking out in front of their peers and speaking up when confronted with a challenge. Live Oak educators help students amplify their voices by showing them how their strengths and particular intelligence make them uniquely powerful. This approach has increased the effectiveness of peer collaboration as well as conflict resolution.

The school year begins with inviting students to share their strengths with their parents. Teacher Kim Yerkes explains the effect: “I have been amazed at the connection it provides for the family and how appreciative the parents are to see and hear about their child’s gifts.”

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Yerkes and her colleagues believe that families want to understand their child’s strengths and how the child is demonstrating growth based upon these strengths. When this strengths-based approach is established at the beginning of the school year, it becomes a means of motivating children and addressing challenges that may arise. When parents understand their child’s strengths that can inspire them to build off of those strengths to experience success. At Live Oak, the teacher, parent, and child are working collaboratively around a common purpose and with a shared understanding of strengths and intelligences.

This penchant for collaboration isn’t reserved for the adults; Yerkes analyzes Thrively strengths data to “better understand the dynamics” of her class. She establishes cooperative groups that build on each child’s assets, enabling all to work together to solve problems and work more effectively as a team. Yerkes uses student journal reflections as formative data to better understand how her students are processing what they’ve learned.

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Down the hall, Yerkes’ colleague, counselor Sarah Latham, is building rapport with 1,000 students at a time. Latham is the counselor for two schools with more than 500 students each. She uses Thrively to get to know each student’s strengths and multiple intelligences. Latham recounts a time when two students, despite conferencing and other supports, could not resolve a conflict. “I had two students that I was struggling with. I looked at their strengths and before I began, I said, ‘I want to show you your profiles on Thrively.’ They both had problem-solving as a strength and as soon as I told them this, their demeanor changed and they were more open to solving their conflict. Each took responsibility for their actions.”

When students are acknowledged and celebrated for what they and their peers bring to the learning environment, they experience a comfort level that allows them to trust that they will be heard. The educators at Live Oak reinforce this each day by seeing and honoring the whole child.

Future innovators gain inspiration for aspirations in Chula Vista

With ground-breaking public-private partnerships, Chula Vista Elementary School District is cultivating young dreamers and innovators whose understanding of their own strengths guides authentic inquiry and discovery. Michael Bruder, Chula Vista Instructional Services Coordinator in the Innovation and Instruction Department, and his team of educators are creating immersive, industry-aligned learning experiences that ignite the imaginations of 4th through 6th-grade students.

Students begin their adventure by using Thrively to unlock their strengths, share their interests, and reveal their aspirations. “Our Station experiences are enriched by being able to use Thrively to connect with students on a deeper level, so that we can unpack their strengths and interests with them and build more meaningful relationships in the time that we are with them. In addition, students become more engaged with the experience when we are able to customize it around their personal strengths, interests, and career aspirations.”

These young innovators then embark on a journey of discovery where they explore their region’s priority sectors: health care, energy/ construction/ utilities, and information and communication technologies/digital media. They learn about the work activities and requisite skills for each career pathway and have a chance to watch day-in-the-life videos about real practitioners. Before students participate in these STEAM experiences at the Innovation, Energy, Hydro, or Health Stations, their classroom teachers launch them on a path of self-discovery. We wanted our students to be able to name their strengths and claim them. Thrively gives us confidence that their strengths are surfaced with accuracy,” explained Bruder.

This accuracy is the result of decades of research conducted by pediatric neuropsychologists Jonine Biesman and Jayme Neiman-Kimel, who designed and then tested the Thrively Strengths Assessment for three years before it was launched.

“Our aim has always been to help students explore their strengths, interests and values. When we discovered Thrively, we found the perfect opportunity to align our objectives with a research-based assessment,” stated Bruder.

Career exploration, informed by self-awareness, has been wildly successful in Chula Vista. When students have an opportunity to explore passions, take intellectual risks, and engage in discovery, they are embodying the core values that drive the work of their industry-sector partners. “When students have the opportunity to explore their interests and find their passion, it helps our team to connect them with careers that they might be interested in,” shared Bruder. Once student interests are known, the innovation team helps students to create and pursue goals. Bruder sees goal orientation as a key component to helping young people pursue “what they love” and work towards their goals. 

“Being able to differentiate our instruction based on the information provided from the Thrively Strengths Assessment not only shapes our interactions with our students, it also allows us to customize it to best fit them. This makes all the difference for our most important stakeholder, our students!”