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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. IOWA NET HIGH ACADEMY.jpg “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. Thrively PBL Project-Based Learning 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.


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. passion.jpg 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. team_building-Thrively 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!”