Stephanie Krauss with Deirdre Faughey

Stephanie Krauss, Photo: Palm Beach Atlantic University

Stephanie Krauss appeared on the PBS Newshour recently to discuss the Shearwater High School, which she founded at the age of 21. A high school dropout herself, Krauss knew firsthand some of the barriers that make success at school so elusive for some students. She agreed to speak with Deirdre Faughey (via cell phone) about her educational philosophy, the steps she had to take to open her own school, and the impact her own educational experiences had on the design of Shearwater.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me about your school. I am really honored that you were willing to take the time to talk to a graduate student about this. I wonder if you could say a little bit about how you got the idea to start your own school.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

Well, it’s probably wound into why I’m willing to talk to graduate students. It was a graduate project that I never knew would become an organization. I had left teaching (I had been in the Teach for America program in Phoenix, Arizona) to pursue a graduate degree in social work, and ended up in St. Louis, at Washington University. I was totally focused on social and economic development issues for street youth looking at education, and so I was looking at the social issues and policies that kept individuals from receiving a quality education, kept communities from building great schools, or institutionally or politically kept certain high risk kids from schooling opportunities. It was a very policy and research focused two-year social work program. In my second year I was taking a doctoral research class in qualitative research and I decided that I should do one project that looked at the local community. The city of St. Louis had poverty issues and kids who were at-risk, and while all of my attention had been focused internationally, I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to get to know the community where I was living. I decided to ask the question that would radically change the rest of my life, which was: what are the unmet educational needs of the hardest-to-reach kids? The project specifically looked at the unmet educational needs of kids who were on their own and homeless, because I figured that they were the most destitute. So, if we could figure out what the needs were of kids who were unaccompanied and without a home, and figure out how to meet those needs, then you could meet the needs of kids who were not as high risk, such as kids who were in foster care.

What I learned was that Washington University was a great access path. Everyone would talk to me. I never got turned down, as a graduate student, for coffee and a conversation. And, everyone had an opinion on education. So, for three or four months I just tromped around the city and sat down and, like you, asked educators and leaders a series of questions, and what happened that was so transformative, that led to beginning Shearwater, was that brokenness was obvious in this community. Less than half the kids graduated from high school, and in comprehensive high schools, only two or three out of every ten that attended would actually graduate. So, everyone understood that there was a problem, and at that moment, five years ago, there wasn’t a good solution. But the other thing I learned about St. Louis (and now I call St. Louis home) was that there was great hope and capacity. St. Louis functions like a small town, even though it’s a major city. Most people were born here and have their children here and stay here, and there’s a lot of pride. St. Louis retains a lot of smart people, who graduated from Washington University or the other universities. What I also heard in those interviews was, “Yes, there’s a huge problem, and we’ll do something, we just can’t champion it. We need a champion.” So, I went to the Dean of my Social Work Department at Washington University and said, “What do I do? There’s a huge need to work with drop-out kids in this community, and the community said they would do something, and they need a champion. Do you know who could champion this?” And so, for the next three months or so I went back around town, trying to find someone who would do something, because I was ethically obligated to find someone to do something. Finally, the Executive Director of Teach for America took me into his office and said, “You are a fool. You could actually really do something! You are that champion, you have to do this!”

One of the greatest gifts of Shearwater is that it started out of a legitimate need, it didn’t start out of a need to start something, and because I was a reluctant founder I immediately turned it back on the community and said, “To be damned, if we’re going to do this, and do it right, you all need to participate and help out.” There were hundreds of people who ended up getting involved in our planning process. We actually took two years then, to plan a school design that was based in the evidence, and based in best practices. We raised money to be able to go out and look across the country at non-profits and schools across sectors, at who was actually re-engaging disconnected kids, and then we began to sew something together that looked and felt like the community. As far as I know, we’re the only school model in the country that’s used the process of evidence-based practice in planning, which is a five-step process that has traditionally been used in medicine and public health and social work, but I pulled into the education sphere. About half-way through our process we realized we might really have something, and so we ended up establishing Shearwater Education Foundation, and the flagship program is this charter school. The idea was that the school would function as a lab, as this pilot program, where we could try all of these different practices and strategies for re-engaging kids back into school. And then, the work of the foundation, beyond designing programs and schools, would be really looking at policy and systems and programs out of what we learning through this grounded experience.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

When you were looking around at other schools, what did you see out there that you wanted to replicate?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

I am a big believer in the old adage from King Solomon that there’s nothing new under the sun. I think that Shearwater is a great example of a patchwork quilt of things that are true and tried, they’ve just been put together in a new way. Our model certainly looks a little bit different from any that currently exist, but at the same time, it’s kind of a conglomeration of a couple of different practices. Our charter application cites some of the ones that we pulled most heavily from, and the founders of those schools and programs have become really dear mentors of mine. From your education background, most prominent would be Grant Wiggins’s Understanding by Design. He’s a mentor of mine and he and I have worked together on our curriculum. There’s a national network of schools called Big Picture Learning, and the idea of teaching through interest and relevance and project based learning. The founders of that network of schools worked heavily on our process, so we pulled from them. There is a model called Early and Middle Colleges, and they put high school kids on college campuses. We’re actually on the campus of a local tech college, so we, like they, believe really strongly that one of the best ways to communicate that you have to go on to education after high school is to have them doing it already physically. We talk about exposure, integration, and transition, and Early and Middle College tries to also equip them to be able to take a class or participate with the college before transitioning into education past high school. There’s a competency-based system here, which means that the students get credit when they show us that they know it. We pulled heavily from another national network of schools called Diploma Plus and worked with their national team to start thinking about the competency based approach, and there are national funders who support that. Then there’s some very specific, single-site, not national networks, that are just getting really amazing outcomes. There is a school in Portland called Open Meadows that has a really sweet integration of social services and education that we looked at a lot. Maya Angelou public charter schools in Washington D.C. do a very similar thing. There is a one-stop social service agency in New York City called The Door, and then, pulling back from a macro perspective, there are two sister cities that support disconnected kids really well: Denver and Philadelphia. We want to become a national center or model for how Shearwater systemically prevents dropouts from happening and re-engages kids who have left school. And Denver and Philly are well on their way to being able to do that. So that kind of gives you a smattering of some of the folks across the country who we are working with.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

You mentioned before that your own education was disrupted in high school and I was wondering if you identified or thought of any school-based factors that allowed for that to happen, and what do you – in your own personal interpretation of your experiences – what do you think needed to be changed about your school experience? What would have prevented you from becoming disengaged as a student?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

That’s a great question. I’ll answer it with two different stories: the difference between my eighth grade teachers and then the teachers I was assigned to in ninth grade. The answer to your question specifically, directly, is I grew up in a small community, in a small town, and I believe that where my high school teachers failed me were low expectations given what they knew of my familial background and my situation. I’ll sort of juxtapose that fact with my eighth grade teachers and my ninth grade teachers.

In eighth grade I had some tremendous issues crop up in my personal life, and my older brother dropped out (I’m one of five). My eighth grade teachers were working in a team-teaching approach, so it was a really close group, sort of a school-within-a-school approach. You were assigned to a team, you were very close to the other students assigned to that team, and it was palpable, the boundaries in the school. So that team decided that no matter what I wasn’t going to drop out of school, that they were going to intervene. And these teachers poured into me, in tremendous ways. I would stay in their classrooms at lunch time, they hooked me up with a counselor, they saw that I was smart, they gave me extra assignments that had interest for me, they engaged me personally and intellectually, and they were just so resolute that I was going to be successful and that I was really talented and that I was more than sort of the sum of my experiences, that I was going to prevail. And then came summertime. I think that for many kids, summertime can actually be more harm that good because I was away from the structure of a school environment and these supportive adults who were holding me accountable. It was just ample time to work and get my feet sunk into jobs that ended up keeping me the next school year. Also trouble, right? It was summertime and I was a middle school kid going into high school. So, the first thing that I believe actually could have retained me would have been year-round schooling, quite honestly. I think a lot of things happen in those few months of break. I certainly wasn’t a kid who went on vacation in summer.

And then in ninth grade, I got into the high school where my older brother had dropped out and there was this pervasive sense that I would too. It followed me everywhere I went. I could give any excuse. I was just talking to somebody about this the other day because I was really concerned that we were lowering our expectations for students here in this building. Life is going to continue to be messed up and broken for these kids. It doesn’t fix itself because they decided to start doing the right thing. So, for me, I felt that I could just do anything, and there was this enabling co-dependence where the teachers didn’t want to push back, they didn’t want to pass value judgment on what was more important – taking care of my family or being in school. Looking back now, what I know now, is that I really needed them to be grown-ups and tell me to sit-back down, and that I was 14 years old and I was in school and that was my job and that they were going to make sure that I stayed. I didn’t have that level of advocacy or intervention. Instead, I had love and support and kindness that was completely enabling for me to say and do whatever I wanted to do. What I ended up doing was lying all the time – you know sometimes there were true emergencies, but sometimes there weren’t – but it worked every single time. I used my own brokenness and my past as this excuse to not be in school, and there was no pushback.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I’m wondering now how you think those experiences and those ideas have helped you form Shearwater. What have you taken from that experience and those ideas that you have applied to the creation of your own school?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

I appraise that a lot because one of the things that I want to make sure I stay away from is “founder’s syndrome.” So, just because I dropped out of school doesn’t make me an authority on all kids who drop out of school. Just because there were times when I was poor, doesn’t mean that I understand the poverty of the students that we are dealing with here in the urban core, because my being poor looked different – similar, in some respects, but also very different than the poverty that some of my students face. But, there are still very distinct ways in which I see my experience and the shaping of my experience as profoundly guiding the philosophy here. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book The Outliers, but the idea that Malcom Gladwell puts forward is that people who are really successful need some sort of exposure, life experiences, or something bizarre that they got ample practice doing. You know, Bill Gates was apparently in walking distance from a giant computer so he just went there and practiced every day, so he had more practice than anyone else. To that end, I have this unique experience of dropping out of school but then having a really profound and high quality post-secondary education, and so there are a couple of beliefs that have resonated with me throughout the years, and some of that has to do with getting my own counseling and healing from my own life, and some of those things that carry over are very similar to the world of recovery from addiction, this idea that you have to want it for yourself. Students that return to school have to want it for themselves, they have to have agency because it’s hard, so they have to make a decision that they’re returning for themselves and not for their aunt or their grandma or anybody else. How I treated college was radically different because I felt like I had blown through the glass ceiling and I just devoured my post-secondary education because I was so grateful. It being hard wasn’t anything compared to the level of gratitude I had.

I think that there’s a necessary quality of grit in order to be successful, a resilience that develops out of hardship, instead of a victim mentality, this sort of perseverance, try-again spirit, and so we will look to find that in our applicants and then we look to cultivate it as much as we can. Definitely the part about high expectations, that these students’ lives – the parents they were born to, the zip codes they were born into – can’t determine what we expect they are able to achieve. I talk often in our building about universal expectations, individual compassion. Sometimes at my school we want to be so compassionate that we end up modifying what we expect of students, but that does them no good because the real world isn’t going to modify itself for our kids, so I think there’s a higher standard for what students are able to achieve, how they’re expected to behave, what they’re capable of showing up against.

I think what it really comes down to is that out of my experience I have a higher expectation of what my students are able to achieve than some of the other staff in my building and some of the other individuals I’ve worked with over the years who work with this population. I believe very strongly that they need to be thinking about post-secondary education and pursuing post-secondary education. And, just that accountability; believing really strongly in universal expectations, individual compassion. No one did me a favor by allowing my life to excuse what my commitments were, and I don’t ever want a student to come back to us and say, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me that wasn’t allowable? Why didn’t you tell me that that was inappropriate? Why didn’t you tell me that they wouldn’t excuse me? I just got fired from my job!” We try to train them and simulate what real life will look like and feel like.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Can I ask you how old you were when you started this school?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

I was 21 (laughs).

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

You were 21? That is amazing to me and it’s one of the things that really stands out about you. I wondered, how did this woman have the guts to start a school at such a young age? 21 is young to be a teacher! (laughs)

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

That’s absolutely right. So, I dropped out at 15, I got my GED and started college at 16, I graduated from college at 18, and then started my second Masters at 21, so I was just about to turn 22 when this started.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

So you were doing all of your education in double-time. You were really piling on the work for yourself there.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

Yeah, you know there are smaller details that get funnier and funnier. Like I graduated from college at 18 because nobody told me how many credits you take, and I was so excited to be in college that I just kept signing up for classes. I had between 23-25 credits per semester because I just loved it. Then it was my best friend in college who said, “Do you know that you’re graduating in June? And I said 18-year-olds don’t graduate from college!” I started Teach for America when I was 18, which is crazy. I would have never hired myself (laughs)!

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Between the amount of work you must have been doing in college, and your own personal experiences, you must have been so prepared. I’m sure there were many things that were unexpected, but in many ways it seems you were the ideal person to start a school at 21.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

For as much as my eighth grade teachers wanted to tell me otherwise, we are the sum of our experiences, and when I made the decision to listen to this community and champion this school I was overwhelmed by how much my own experiences led to this.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

I wonder what’s next? Is there any new direction for Shearwater? Will anything change for you personally?

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

We just brought in a principal for the school. For the past few years I’ve really had a hybrid role – school building leadership, and being the Chief Executive of the foundation, but now that we’ve established the major components of our model – if you think about it, what we do at our foundation and our school is kind of like cancer research. It’s the equivalent of cancer research in the education world. Cancer, like a high school dropout, is murky and cloudy and there are lots of causes, and there aren’t lots of really good medicines. And yet, we have to, we have no other choice but to pour resources into how we can figure out how we can cure cancer. To that end, as it relates to the actual school, we see it as one possible drug. We put the components together over the last couple of years, and now we’ve hired a principal to really trial that. We graduated some kids in June, we passed some legislation, now can we get the same outcomes year after year after year?

The hope for Shearwater in the next 5-10 years is to grow into becoming a national leader for drop-out prevention and recovery. So, taking what we do really well and also taking what we’ve learned, and also taking different avenues for impact, and then to work with districts and non-profit agencies to replicate portions of the school model, or the full school model itself. We’ve also learned a lot about training and development. 90% of our kids perform at the elementary level in math, even though they’re 17 or older and all of them have a transcript that says they’re in tenth grade or higher. How do you train teachers to work in that kind of environment? We feel we’ll be poised in the coming years to partner with schools of education, and then work with leaders already in the field, so that teachers can be really prepared to work with secondary aged kids who are working at an elementary level. How do you scaffold when you are working in what looks like an old one-room schoolhouse, just with teenagers? So this is an area we see ourselves poised to grow into. Also, more policy and advocacy work. There are all kinds of legislative barriers for really excellent programming for this population. Mainly, how do we, from a policy standpoint, continue advocating for a competency-based education and backwards-design education, and those kinds of things? How do we begin training and equipping other schools to start thinking about what’s the best thing for kids and how to push for additional resources or changes in policy? Also, research and evaluation. So that policy and research is so a part of my DNA. How do we research the impact of our model, but also become a thought-leader so folks can call us and ask our opinion on these other programs? And then, ultimately, being able to consult with different municipalities and school districts. What would it look like if St. Louis public schools came to us and said, “We want you to work with us over six months to really do a needs assessment and understand how we can best approach servicing this group of kids by looking at what we have up and running.” I really see us coming out with that complete hand, touching service and advocacy, community – we talk about local commitment, national impact, really thinking about how what we’re doing locally can have implications across the country. Certainly large ambitions, but coming out of pervasive needs, and doing it thoughtfully by not saying that we’ll be a national center in the next 18 months but just being really intentional about what that growth could look like.

DEIRDRE FAUGHEY

Thank you so much for talking to me! It’s been wonderful to hear your thoughts and your experiences, and I thank you for taking the time.

STEPHANIE KRAUSS

Absolutely!

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers CollegeColumbia University. Deirdre completed a Masters degree in the Teaching of English from Teachers College, and a Bachelors degree in Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College. She currently teaches 10th and 11th grade English.

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