A school built on solid ground
The numerous challenges faced by schools in low-income urban areas are deeply entrenched. Most struggle to simply survive, much less thrive. With the generous support of donors who see education as a cornerstone of positive transformation and community members who share our vision, Rise Prep has built a stable, effective model that is already changing lives. Our model relies on four foundational principles:
Rise Prep teachers are passionate, experienced, and view their role as a calling. What’s more, with nearly every faculty member living in our school’s neighborhood, our faculty are intimately woven into the fabric of the community, creating continuity and guarding against high teacher turnover. Educator stability means our students come to class knowing that they enter a place of learning with unshakable foundations.
Unacceptably high teacher turnover rates in poor urban areas has reached epidemic levels, bringing into the classroom the instability that defines the neighborhoods’ socioeconomic state just outside their walls. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in San Francisco, where the exorbitant cost of living adds yet another challenge to the long list that results in teacher burnout, difficulty of recruitment, and ultimately, teacher turnover. In Bayview, San Francisco’s poorest performing area, the teacher turnover rate stands at 31%, three times that of the rest of the district.
This instability is difficult on a child of any age but has an especially damaging impact on those in middle school, where the turnover rate in Bayview climbs to a staggering 50%. Middle school years are a time of particular developmental vulnerability due to rapid changes in the children’s minds, bodies, and social bonds. At this age, children experience an increase in independence and choice-making, commingled with new peer-pressures and the need to belong. Without the steady guidance of committed adults, children are often left to navigate these turbulent years in school on their own. It’s little wonder that high levels of chronic truancy often begin at this stage, setting them on a trajectory that perpetuates their neighborhood’s cycle of poverty, crime, and instability.
To combat this cycle, an unwavering strategy at Rise Prep has been to hire teachers who are both experienced and rooted in the neighborhood. Faculty at Rise Prep have been carefully selected for their commitment to education, each bringing an average of over ten years of experience. The green zeal of new teachers is replaced by first-hand understanding of the true cost of teaching. And despite the high costs that they have endured for years, our teachers stand in front of their students knowing that their position is a gift and a calling.
What’s more, five out of six members of our faculty live in Bayview as neighbors of some of their students. Their knowledge of the challenges facing their students in the context of their neighborhood is vivid and three-dimensional. More profoundly, they see their future and that of their students and their families as inextricably bound. When a Rise Prep student wins, it’s a win for a community.
Through small classes, committed teachers, and a rich support structure, Rise Prep nurtures students to help them overcome the many obstacles to learning that are uniquely endemic to socio-economically challenged areas. By caring for our students as whole individuals and not simply scholars, we not only hold them to the high standards of a rigorous program, we help our students meet them.
Poor academic achievement goes hand-in-hand with socio-economically challenged urban areas. In Bayview, the poorest performing neighborhood in San Francisco, the population is largely non-white. According to district numbers, Latinx students graduate at 75% and just 35% are University of California eligible. The figures for black students are 70% and 27%. These stats illuminate a two-fold issue: Getting standard education to these populations is clearly a challenge, but too many of those graduating are ill-prepared for a rigorous college experience. A high school diploma is not enough to level a profound imbalance.
The intractable problem of education in poor urban areas results from a complex tangle of larger non-educational issues. On their first day at Rise Prep, many students arrive not only with academic aptitude levels several years behind the standard, but with problems that hamper learning that go beyond mere access to quality education. Some come from families that regularly experience food insecurity, others live in cramped quarters with many family members sharing the same room. Some have witnessed or directly experienced violence. Learning is difficult in the face of trauma. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Rise Prep is founded on the vision of preparing every one of our students not just for graduating from high school, but for thriving in college and beyond.
Achieving our goal is a costly investment. We limit each class to 20-25 students and match them with committed educators. The result is a profound shift from generic transmission of knowledge to individualized relationships that serve the whole child. Instead of facing broad procedures and disciplinary steps, students facing obstacles are pulled aside, coaxed out of resistance or frustration, and challenged towards a growth mindset. In a recent survey, 100% of Rise Prep students said that they have been pushed to do better on future activities. But only after we provide high levels of support for the whole child can we begin to hold them to uncompromising standards of academic achievement.
And it’s working. When students trust faculty and know that they are supported, they want to grow and learn even when expectations are high. Our recent standardized test data shows that our students’ growth in all academic domains (reading, language and math) exceed national averages. Compared to similar schools, our test score growth ranks in the top quartile for language, top 2% for math, and top 1% for reading.* These numbers are early indicators that there is hope for our students despite the odds, that every dollar and every hour we spend incrementally lifts not just one person out of poverty, but generations hereafter. We can think of no better investment.
*NWEA 2017-2018 Math, Reading, and Language Standardized Test
A critical part of Rise Prep’s success has been the reliance on partners who level the odds every day in our favor. Our community partners provide a broader set of tools and a deeper bank of resources than are accessible to typical inner-city schools. Through our relationships with neighbors and like-minded organizations, education becomes both the responsibility and the hope of a community.
We have always understood that a lone teacher in a classroom of students—the traditional unit of the educational model—could only fail in our context. This is especially true in our context, one in which some children come to class from dangerous streets and broken homes, having suffered trauma that disrupt not just academic growth but character development as well. Social skills, too, arise from learned patterns of violence or survival. When an educator is called to be not just a teacher, but a counselor, a disciplinarian, a mentor, a cheerleader, and a healer for not just one but an entire class of students, they are ineffective at being any of them.
To counter the larger social and economic disadvantages many of our students bear, we had to invert the idea of embedding a teacher in a class of students by embedding our students in a larger community of adults dedicated to their growth as whole individuals. While the classroom lead by an experienced, committed educator is at the core of our program, we rely on scores of volunteers from our community to create a rich network of relationships that support our students and our staff throughout the academic year.
In the 2017-18 school year, volunteers donated 2000 hours to tutoring and program support and 40+ community leaders visited as guest speakers. Each student is matched with a sponsor-mentor who cheer on their progress and a student behavior consultant visits each week to discuss issues in and out of the classroom. Parents, too, play a vital role in the life of all our scholars: from tutoring, to guest coaching, to fundraising, to supplying afternoon snacks. Alongside our educators is a community galvanized around a shared vision to overwhelm the trials of our students and rebalance the scales as only an entire community can.
Key to our community model are two key partnerships with organizations with whom we share physical space: Redeemer Church and Dayspring Technologies. This unorthodox configuration between a school, a church, and a technology firm has given us a broad spectrum of advantages. Since our inception, Redeemer has played a crucial role of offering spiritual and relational support, buttressing our staff against the strain that usually characterizes the work of inner-city schools. For its part, Dayspring continually donates professional services that free us to focus on our students and plays an active role in our curriculum development and students’ lives. Their very presence demystifies the new economy, bringing a world obscured behind closed gilded doors to an open room just down the hall.
What results when a community comes together to create a rich environment for personal and academic growth? We tap into the fundamental human need for deep connections and our students thrive. And if there’s one improbable evidence of our model’s success, it’s that our students desire more school, not less. When reminded that Rise Prep already has longer school days by ending at 5pm, one student countered, “Yeah, then we should do something after five as well. And maybe school on Saturday, too.”
Ultimately it is hope in our big, loving God that fuels everything we do and focuses us to where we are headed. His binding love compels us to reflect the same type of love in our present time and place as His kingdom breaks in upon our sidewalks. Our vision is rooted in a Biblical sense of Jubilee, which is the undoing of gross inequities and reclaiming God’s good and bountiful apportionment to each community to flourish.
The Bayview neighborhood is no stranger to being seen as a project to be implemented or a problem to be solved. “Reconstitution,” “dream schools,” “more tech,” have all promised lasting change to great initial hope and fanfare—potentially solving deep socio-economic and educational inequities. But the desire for unrooted, quick and dramatic change in the digital age of “Fail Often, Fail Fast” has resulted in just that: fast failures and deep disappointments. Perhaps the one change that has resisted failure is gentrification. Rather than solving the area’s problems, however, this shifts it outward as families are priced out of their homes and displaced from their neighborhoods.
We believe that the Bayview is not a problem to be solved, fixed or conquered. Rather, it is a blessed place with blessed people where God is actively at work through human relationships. One could say that Bayview is on the margins of power and influence, even left out of tourist maps. But we believe that it is exactly in the margins where we find Jesus at work. This is where truth is spoken to power. This is where the invisible is made real. This is where rooted neighbors can testify to God’s mysterious, steady and long-lasting work borne out of people loving God and loving neighbor.
Because our hope rests in God instead of ourselves, teachers and administrators know that we are here to join our students. Because we join God in His deep love for each child, working with parents and community to tend and nurture this young person with deliberate and measured steps that take time. Knowing that it is God at work through us and in our students liberates us from the burnout that often happens with educators in high needs schools. Our students begin to see that their lives are not predetermined by their place of birth or where they live, but their futures are open because God is at work in them, their teachers, and in this neighborhood.
The Results of Our Model
Our model has resulted in dramatic improvement in language, reading, and math performance. Rise Prep 6th graders’ improvement was above or near the top decile in all subjects. That is, out of every 10 similar schools, students from only 1 school improved as much as our 6th graders did. Our 7th graders did even better—students from fewer than 1 in ~1000 schools did as well.
STANDARDIZED TEST GROWTH FALL 2018 - SPRING 2019 COMPARED WITH SIMILAR SCHOOLS*