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Excerpted from a speech written by Jamie Leon-Luna, an 8th grader at a NYC Outward Bound School in Brooklyn, for our 2019 gala

I am an 8th grader from MS839, an NYC Outward Bound School in Brooklyn. My school just joined the network this year. In my school, like in all NYC Outward Bound Schools, everyone is very connected and can rely on one another for support. We are what you would call a community.

My school focuses on making sure everyone feels safe and supported. This is crucial to having a successful learning experience.

I used to take MS839’s emphasis on community for granted. But at the beginning of seventh grade, I transferred to another school to be closer to my little brother. This new school was so unlike MS839 that I had a lot of trouble adjusting.

At my new school, the relationship between the teachers and students wasn’t good. You couldn’t rely on the teachers to support you in the areas that needed growth. For example, in my social studies class, I would only get worksheets and would have to complete them with my table. I didn’t learn well like this because I learn best when lessons are engaging and specific.

The teachers relied heavily on slide shows to explain their lessons. But the information on the slides was really broad, and not very thought-provoking. Sometimes, I would want to know more about the topic, but when I asked my teachers, hoping for some engaging discussion–like I was used to–they would shut me down, and say “Everything you need to know is on the slide.”  I just didn’t understand what we were learning or why, but I was too embarrassed to ask these questions again. Which didn’t make me very excited about learning, as you can imagine.

To make matters worse for me, even though we were given homework, most teachers wouldn’t bother to check it. So I didn’t always do it–I know, that wasn’t the right way to deal with the situation.

It didn’t take long to realize that this new school wasn’t a good fit for me or my family. So two months into 7th grade, I returned to MS839. Even though I was glad to be back at MS 839, some of those bad habits stayed with me: I wasn’t motivated to try hard in my classes because I felt my grades weren’t important. At the other school, they sure didn’t seem important to my teachers, so I thought I could get away with it.

At MS 839, on the other hand, my teachers noticed my lack of effort in my homework and class preparation and would check in with me. They would ask “Are you sure you understand the material?” “Do you need help with anything?” In fact, my Crew Leader, who knew me before I changed schools, asked me at one point: “Jamie, is something wrong?”  Nobody at the other school would have ever asked me this question because they wouldn’t have noticed.

I am a very stubborn person so when my teachers at MS839 would talk to me and offer help, I would lie and say “I understand. I’m fine.” I didn’t want their help—in fact, I still didn’t believe that they ACTUALLY wanted to help me—I didn’t want to put effort into my work because I didn’t believe they really cared about how hard I worked—they certainly hadn’t cared at my last school.

Fortunately, my teachers at MS839 were stubborn too. They never gave up on me and knew what I was capable of. Finally, my Humanities teacher demanded to meet with me. He said, “We’re gonna make a plan to get your grades up TOGETHER.”

I finally saw that I wasn’t alone and that my teachers really DID care about how well I was doing.  7th grade is a really important year and affects which high school a student gets into. Having my teachers support finally helped me realize that I needed to clean up my act and take school more seriously if I was going to make it to a great high school. In fact, I’m headed to an AWESOME high school next year: Brooklyn Collaborative, another NYC Outward Bound School.

Community at MS 839 is not just about the relationships between teachers and students. At my school, we value one another’s opinions and make sure everyone feels heard. For example, in class discussions, we always follow the one mic rule. In crew, we sit in a circle and have a talking piece. Communications to parents are sent in English and Spanish, which has been really helpful to my mom. And, instead of traditional parent-teacher conferences, we do Student-Led Conferences, or SLCs. During SLCs, we students select and present examples of our work to our teachers and families, including places of mastery and struggle. SLCs make me really nervous, but my Crew always helps me prepare beforehand, making me feel confident to share my progress with my family.

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