Principal Rachel Skerritt was in the middle of one of the busiest parts of the year, planning for students’ return to Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C. this fall. With her hands full juggling agendas, making sure teachers knew where they were supposed to be and coordinating the all-school assembly, she hadn’t had much time to think about how students would feel about returning to school.
But Voncia Monchais had been mulling over that question all summer, especially since the Class of 2015 will be the first senior class Eastern has graduated since reopening as a turnaround school* with a new principal and staff. Monchais wanted to roll out the red carpet for the senior class and get them excited about their last year. So she did. The first day at Eastern featured a red carpet leading up to the front door, crowns for every senior, a DJ out front and an overall festive atmosphere.
“I’ve never seen so many smiles on the first day,” Skerritt said. It’s a good thing, because unexpectedly the mayor, school chancellor and the press all showed up to do first-day-of-school coverage.
“That energy from day one really propelled us through the first couple weeks, which are some of the hardest weeks of a school year,” Skerritt said. Despite shuffling schedules and broken technology, kids remained optimistic about the school year.
Monchais is now bringing that same creative energy to back-to-school night, trying to think of ways to welcome parents into the school and make them feel part of the community. It’s all part of a program called the Future Project, a nonprofit organization that pays Monchais’ salary as the school’s dream director — her mission is to help students identify their passions and connect them with resources to turn them into realities.
After a year at Eastern, Monchais has created a “Dream Team” of students who represent student voices in school activities and plan events to unify the student body. “I knew it would take students who were inspirational, who were role models, who had good standing with teachers, who could talk to people,” Monchais said of the group she selected. Some of the students were recommended by teachers, while others had that rare leadership quality but were disengaged from school. The key thing Monchais was looking for was commitment, so joining the team had to be an opt-in choice.
“There were a lot of conversations about how we can give students more voice in the school,” Monchais said. One of the first things the group did was take over planning the honor roll assemblies. Instead of a stiff reading of the honor roll names each quarter, the events have become entirely student-run and presented.
Students choose modern music, invite younger inspirational guest speakers and coordinate performances by other students as a way to highlight the talent of the student body. The Dream Team also wanted to make sure passionate Eastern students got recognized who were involved in interesting activities but didn’t meet the academic requirements for honor roll. They started doing a “Rambler callout” during the honor roll assemblies to credit students who excelled in other areas. They also recognized teachers.
One of the biggest innovations was allowing each honor roll honoree a VIP guest at a special luncheon. Those student guests got to sit in a special cordoned-off area of the assembly hall. After starting this tradition, many more students made the honor roll the following quarter. “You are a celebrity because you did the right thing,” Monchais said.
The Dream Team is passionate about improving the school climate at Eastern. Its members have become leaders of the student body. “The [students] that have been on her specific team have shown incredible growth,” Skerritt said. During the first year of the Future Project, Eastern was trying to incorporate hundreds of new students from a nearby high school that had been closed by the district. Skerritt worried it would be hard to create a cohesive school culture in that environment. Monchais invited some of the new students to be part of the Dream Team. “Everyone knows them, it’s like they’ve always been here,” Skerritt said. “Some of the things that were student-designed projects have become traditions.”
As a turnaround school, Eastern is in the process of building its identity and the school traditions that will go with it. The Dream Team has helped shape the school’s trajectory. Its members took the lead organizing a Black History performing showcase, events to talk about self-esteem and a girls empowerment day. While these types of activities aren’t unique to Eastern, asking students to design the programs that will get their peers excited, while helping to make their vision a reality, is less common.
One student, Aniya Young, identified a passion for fashion last year. Monchais helped send her to New York to meet with fashion designers and then supported her as she put on her own fashion show at the high school. Young says she still has the contact information for those designers and that she’s been in touch with one about doing some work over the summer.
“I feel accomplished and that I’m a mentor to other kids who are above me, and they look to me to see how a real scholar is supposed to be, a real dreamer,” Young said of her time on the Dream Team. While she’s always been a natural leader, she said, in eighth grade she didn’t really enjoy school. Now she’s excited to arrive at Eastern every day because she’s respected and sees the Dream Team as her family.
SUPPORTING TEACHER DREAMS
The Future Project has dream directors in several public high schools across the country, including New York, New Haven, Newark, Washington, D.C., Detroit and San Francisco. “The Future Project invests in the most significant way that you can in a school, which is with human capital,” Skerritt said. All of her teachers want to help make their students’ dreams become realities, but they also have to focus on covering their curriculum and inspiring their students academically. Having a devoted staff member in the building every day — who knows the schedule and personalities but whose job is to focus on engaging students as leaders while helping them reach their goals — is invaluable.
Monchais is one of the few dream directors who used to be a classroom teacher. She taught AP Government and African-American History in Miami for eight years. “I was one of those teachers who came early and stayed late every day,” Monchais said. “Even with all the time I put in, there was so much I wanted to do that I just didn’t have the capability to do.”
That perspective has made her a great resource for Eastern’s teachers, many of whom have ideas they’d like to try but no extra bandwidth to get them done. “As a teacher it is awesome when someone else comes in and takes something off your plate,” said Crystal Gordon, who coordinates the evening credit recovery program for students who have fallen behind. “It creates space for you to come and cheer and support the kids.” If Monchais is the Dream Team “Momma,” Gordon calls herself the team’s “Auntie.” Monchais helped Gordon reach her own dream of starting an after-school dance club.
“[Dream Directors] are not just these outside entities working with the students, but rather it’s pervasive throughout the school,” Monchais said. “The hope is that by the time we are done at the end of each year, we have ignited so much passion in teachers and students that there has become a culture of pursuing your passion.”
Eastern’s music teacher took advantage of Mochais’ energy to break away from the rigid curriculum he was asked to teach. He wanted to give students a way to showcase their talents that wasn’t dictated by a test or a rigid format. Monchais helped him and Gordon put on a music and dance show highlighting their students’ talent. Monchais had the time to get approval, coordinate studio space, work on lighting and hold after-school auditions — all those time-consuming tasks crucial to getting a new program off the ground.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
At a time when most adult energy in a school is focused on the academic performance of students, it’s easy to forget about the spirit of the school. Skerritt said it’s hard to tie academic gains to the Future Project specifically, although she does think the student-centered approach to events and focus on school culture have helped create a motivating atmosphere.
“Without that capacity of someone with her energy and connection to this group of students, a lot of the amazing things that happened this past year would not have happened,” Skerritt said. Gordon believes Monchais’ work has helped students mature, become leaders and create a positive school climate.
“The Future Project brings the fact that there’s joy in life to school,” Gordon said. “The kids look forward to coming to school because they know the Dream Team will have something exciting going on.”
This year, Monchais is trying to broaden the group of students she works with, reaching out to less engaged students and encouraging current Dream Team members to mentor other students.
*The original version of this story erroneously stated that Eastern closed in 2010 and reopened the following year. The school never closed. Seniors graduated in June of 2011 and a new set of 9th graders started the turnaround school that same summer. We regret the error.