The Sturgis Effect (Summer 2012)

In response to press about the growing popularity of Sturgis Charter Public School, the Barnstable Enterprise ran an in-depth, two-part series on Sturgis in June 2012. To see the complete series including main articles, sidebars, graphs, charts, photos, as well as an editorial and letters to the editor about the series, go to:  The Sturgis Effect: A Two-Part Series.

Sturgis faculty members Arthur Pontes and Robin Singer wrote letters to the editor of the Barnstable Enterprise. The complete text of their letters follow:

A Teacher’s View Of Sturgis by Arthur Pontes, English

Dear Editor,                                                                                                                                                   July 9, 2012

I have read your two part series and your editorial about Sturgis with interest since I have been a teacher at Sturgis for the past eight years.  I am not writing in any official capacity but only as a private individual who has had experience at Sturgis.  What follows is my personal view and does not reflect any “official” view as seen by school leaders; it is based on personal experience and is not the result of any formal study done by me or anyone else that I am aware of.

The two articles were objective, well researched and began to pose a set of questions that should concern anyone interested in the best educational experience for all of our children whether they attend Sturgis or one of the other district public systems.  I have many thoughts about your articles but have decided to respond to only one of them here – the issue of motivation.  There is an assumption in the editorial of July 6 that motivation means a desire to learn and to work hard.  The article assumes that most, if not all, Sturgis students enter the school with a burning desire to learn even if their abilities may vary widely. This is seen, correctly, as a partial if not complete answer as to why Sturgis students do so well on their IB exams and MCAS scores and as to why they show larger gains on MCAS between grades eight and ten than in many district schools and why they are so willing to take on such a heavy course/academic load.

A “motive” is a reason for something; it is the “why”.   It is true that many students elect to come to Sturgis because they want the challenge of strong academics but students, themselves, give a more nuanced set of reasons for their motivation to leave their previous districts and to attend a school where they must establish new friendships while forsaking their old friends in their former districts.   In some cases the reasons given by some students are that they elect to come to Sturgis in spite of a difficult academic program not because of it.

Some come to Sturgis because of a chance to re-invent themselves in a new environment and to forge new friendships free of previous social issues.  Social acceptance is very important to young teens as is well known but this motive does not necessarily lead to a student being highly motivated to learn.

Some come to Sturgis expecting some sort of miraculous cure for a lack of academic success in previous schools. Often these students bring poor study skills and a poor self image with them. Some seem to think that just by attending Sturgis they will have taken the magic pill leading to school success.  Careful attention given by guidance counselors and administrators and the extra efforts of my teaching  colleagues are the key ingredients for helping the majority of these students to gain confidence, to learn and eventually to succeed.

Some come because their parents have made them come even though they have little interest in attending Sturgis.  This group is most often the source of discipline issues and is a group of reluctant learners unless the staff and student body can “convert” them to the Sturgis way.  Over time many of these become part of the “Sturgis team” and, like all converts, are often our school’s most outspoken advocates.

The one thing that I have frequently heard from students is that they come to Sturgis because they feel safe at our school.  This seems to trump the fact that the program is more difficult than they might really have wanted.  They feel safe from the sarcasm and bullying  directed at them because of appearance or the way they behave.   They sometimes also state that they feel safe from physical harm as well.  These students sometimes say that they were mocked by others when they said something in class discussion that others found either too clever or too “dumb” such that they did their best not to say anything.  They are aware that Sturgis has an ethos where acceptance, careful listening, and a discussion of ideas rather than any personally directed remarks is what is expected of all.  As a teacher, I do my utmost to foster mutual respect in the classroom and hallways student to student, teacher to student, and student to teacher.  My colleagues do the same. There is a general acceptance of all sorts of people and ideas as a part of Sturgis’ school culture.  I believe that this is part of what makes our students show so much growth and success.

Still others have stated that they have come to Sturgis because they do not feel like a number at our school.  This may be because of class sizes that are small enough for everyone  to be known and because students get personal attention from teachers and are able to participate actively in these smaller classes.   Students at Sturgis are expected to behave as young adults and they generally live up to those expectations.  There are no hall passes given.  Students are expected to leave class and return as quickly as is possible if they must leave class.  They are expected to arrive at class on time and they generally do so.  Teachers trust their students and the students respond in kind.  This trust extends from student to student as can be seen from the absence of locks on vast majority of student lockers.  How do these expectations impact “motivation”?  I myself am not sure but it may well play a part as to why some students elect to attend Sturgis or, once they attend, why they decide to stay.

I hope that my impressions will help shed some light on the reasons why some students are motivated to select Sturgis.  Things are often more complex than they may seem at first glance and the Sturgis “advantage” may not be all that it seems to an outside observer.

Arthur Pontes

Respect Is Key by Robin Singer, Mathematics

I am a math teacher at Sturgis Public Charter School but I am writing as a Falmouth citizen/taxpayer, and not as a representative of Sturgis, in response to Beth Underhill’s thoughtful letter of July 6.

She is curious about what is done in the classrooms at Sturgis to contribute to the academic success of Sturgis students, which is currently being widely discussed in the local newspapers. I can offer my view, which is that the most important factor in this success is the Sturgis culture, embedded with respect at all levels. Administrators, teachers, students, parents, substitutes, and volunteers all treat each other with respect, compassion, helpfulness, courtesy, and common sense. It is this culture that keeps talented teachers at Sturgis, despite the lower pay, and allows adolescents going through myriad changes to feel safe and supported.

This respect and courtesy are felt in the classrooms and during the ample extra help sessions provided to all students by classroom teachers, and also by SPED specialists to the many students with special needs. When you couple this kind of atmosphere with the high standards of the IB program, students learn.

I would also like to dispel the myth that our students come to Sturgis free from the difficult backgrounds of students elsewhere. While I am not free to share the problems that many of our students face, I can assure you that they run the full gamut of problems people can face. The capable guidance staff deals with a great many serious situations, just like at other public schools. If only our school (and all the others) faced only a happy, trouble-free group of academically motivated students…. That being said, at least one adult in the student’s life must be willing to help get the charter school application submitted, which possibly provides a filter for the very worst situations. However, many troubled students or parents of troubled students are drawn to Sturgis because they have heard that Sturgis is a place where everyone is accepted and where help is offered if at all possible.

Several writers, including Ms. Underhill, have claimed that comparing Sturgis scores to those of other Cape schools is comparing apples to oranges. In my view, the best way to assess a school’s success, regardless of the student population, is by using a measure provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts called the Student Growth Percentile (abbreviated SGP), which shows how much a student’s performance has improved from one year to the next relative to his or her academic peers, who are other students statewide with similar MCAS test scores in prior years. While I do not by any means feel that learning is all about test scores, this is a statistic that really does compare apples to apples and provides some view of the “value added” by a school. The previously lower performing students are compared to previously lower performing students all around the state, and the previously higher performing students are compared to other previously higher performing students around the state, and the actual growth while at Sturgis and other schools can be measured. Sturgis has a very satisfactory SGP.

But statistics do not provide the whole picture. In my opinion, the most important factor is that Sturgis teachers and administrators have their eye on the right values. Sturgis in some ways reminds me of YMCA summer camp, and indeed, students start with a trip to Camp Burgess as freshmen. The teachers value each member of the diverse student body for who he or she is, and we do our best to help them grow in every way, while at Sturgis.

I do not want to imply that these kinds of teachers and programs are not seen in many and possibly all of the schools around the Cape. I am merely providing my “take” on Sturgis in response to Ms. Underhill’s letter. Sturgis is not perfect, but the message from the top is that we should always be actively engaged in improving and making the school a better place for the students to thrive and to learn.

Robin C. Singer

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