We Don't Make It Easy on the Kids at Our School and They Like It That Way

The one thing I didn’t learn in college about being a good teacher is having patience. When I began my career three years ago at Columbus Collegiate Academy, a middle school serving students in sixth through eighth grades, I hoped to see immediate results. I wanted a light to flash in the eyes of all my students as they acquired an instantaneous thirst for knowledge and instruction. But education is a marathon, not a sprint. The vast majority of our students are economically disadvantaged children coming from low-performing elementary schools. Few, if any, of their parents attended college, and some did not complete high school. Most of them are not learning at grade level when they arrive. Getting them to view themselves as scholars prepared for academic success is not an overnight process—it’s a multiyear deal. This is why teaching can be frustrating in the short term, but so rewarding beyond it.

How I Found the Place for Me

Columbus Collegiate Academy (CCA) is part of United Schools Network (USN), a system of high-performing charter schools currently serving grades kindergarten through second and sixth through eighth grades. To be honest, as a college student at Ohio Northern University, I never saw myself working for a school system like USN. Because of the poor quality of many charter schools in Ohio, my professors looked down on them. When my classmates and I pondered the kinds of places we wanted to teach, none of us talked about working at a charter school. I applied for the jobs at USN among other opportunities I had seen posted on the Ohio Department of Education website. I had no idea what USN was or what it was about. But what struck me about its application was that it was the only one that asked me questions about my perspective, sizing up my fit with its college-prep mission for underserved, urban youth. The others simply instructed us to submit our résumés. It gave me the impression that USN was a little more serious than the other schools I was considering. I was about 5 minutes into my interview with Kathryn Anstaett, the director of Columbus Collegiate Academy’s Dana Avenue campus, when I realized it was the place for me—although there were no students there that day. She walked me through the school and told me what USN did for children and the intentionality with which it ran its school day, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Today, I am the seventh-grade level chair for Columbus Collegiate Academy-Dana. I teach seventh-grade math, but also interact with the sixth- and eighth-graders throughout each school day enough that I get to know each student. Because of this, I have had the privilege over the past three years of seeing the gradual transformation that takes place within our students from the first time they enter our doors until the day they depart for some of the most rigorous high schools in Columbus.

One Student's Story

I am extremely proud of all our students, but one stands out in my mind. I met a student who was angry about having to repeat the sixth grade. Her reading performance was in the 11th percentile on one of the key standardized tests we administered, the MAP test (Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress). She also was consistently underperforming in math and exhibited a lot of behavioral issues. Even as she improved academically, her propensity for acting out resulted in time outside of the classroom, which made it difficult for her to catch up. When she entered seventh grade, it was clear that her attitude about her school and her teachers had changed. She was in a reading intervention group throughout her years at CCA, and in the middle of the year, she no longer had to be in it. She was very proud of that achievement and started working harder, which in turn led her to continue to do better. Then, near the end of the school year, she experienced the unexpected death of her dad. She missed a lot of school, found it difficult to be in a classroom and her grades slipped as a result. But when she began the eighth grade last year, she was on fire. She knew middle school was ending, and she knew what she needed to do to reach the next level. At the end of the year, she was accepted into one of the best high schools in the city. What I saw in this student is what I see in so many others. When she worked hard with nothing to show for it, she became frustrated. But once she had a taste of achievement, she began to believe in herself. After that, everything came more easily. The culture that has been built here at USN is one that respects its scholars enough to hold them to high expectations. A lot of our students come from schools where they received an A for simply turning in an assignment or a smiley-face sticker for showing up to school that day. At USN, they have to work for their grades. Nothing is given to them, and they know they earn every point they get. It requires patience, both theirs and ours, but when you witness a student experiencing success for the first time, it’s worth it.
Ashley Petrozzi teaches seventh grade math and is the grade level chair at the Columbus Collegiate Academy charter school in Columbus, Ohio. She is a graduate of Ohio Northern University.

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