From Bored Student to School Leader

How one student found her voice and her purpose.

By Anne Bannister

Pharen’s teachers describe her as a leader, an advocate, a writer, and a poet. But this wasn’t always the case. When Pharen arrived at KIPP Liberation College Preparatory Middle School as a fifth grader, she was reserved and hesitant to contribute in class. She generally performed well academically but, according to her teachers, often didn’t give school her full effort. Something changed during Pharen’s middle school tenure, and it wasn’t just growing into adolescence. The classroom itself changed, which helped give Pharen newfound confidence and contributed to her growing into the leader and advocate she was meant to be.  

Underchallenged and underperforming

“We were really struggling at other schools in the area because they were not challenging at all for Pharen,” her mother, Lilian, says. 

“At all,” Pharen echoes. A look of frustration crosses her face at the memory. 

“She would race through the work and then sit in class bored,” Lilian says, “I know how that felt because I was the same way.”

When it came time for Pharen to enroll in middle school, her grandmother recommended KIPP Liberation, based on a friend’s endorsement. Her grandmother lives down the street from the school in Houston’s historic Third Ward community.

Pharen initially wasn’t fully engaged at KIPP Liberation, either. In most classes, she would race through the content and spend the rest of the class period drawing and listening to music. She did her work but didn’t connect with her studies on a meaningful level. She also began struggling in math. 

This continued through the start of eighth-grade. “Pharen came in, and based on her [NWEA] MAP score and her STARR score, I knew that she was one of the higher performing students in the grade level,” says Pharen’s eighth-grade English Language Arts Teacher, Nicolas Mendoza. “I noticed really quickly that she knew that she could finish the work quicker than most people … I also noticed, at the beginning, that she was not putting forth her full effort, like they were not complete sentences, her thoughts were sort of there. You could see she was getting the right answers, but she wasn’t invested in formatting her work correctly, and I think that was because she didn’t see the point.

Right before Pharen arrived at KIPP Liberation, KIPP Texas-Houston made a pivotal discovery in their data that initiated a journey to transform the classroom and instructional model. And it changed school for Pharen.

Produced and edited by Anne Bannister; cinematography by Anne Bannister & Chela Giraldo; assisted by Jennifer Jendzrey

The Need for Student Agency

About five years ago, KIPP Texas-Houston found that, while 84% of its high school students matriculated into college, only 51% persisted to graduation.

In studying the root causes of this attrition rate with researchers from the University of Houston, KIPP Texas-Houston learned many graduates were not prepared for the rigors of college math coursework, and too often lacked the agency and self-direction to persist in a less structured college setting. 

KIPP Texas-Houston’s leadership saw the 2015 Raising Blended Learners grant initiative as an opportunity to build a stronger foundation in math in the middle school years, as well as focus on developing student agency and ownership.

“The design of RBL was aligned to creating classrooms that would recreate experiences for students so that they could be ready academically for college and also be able to navigate the complexities of being students within a college environment,” explains Michael Norton, Manager of Digital Teaching and Learning for KIPP Public Schools. “We designed middle school classrooms so the students would have opportunities to make productive decisions about their learning while still being held to the same bar of rigor that we have for all of our students.” 

Tai Ingram the School Leader at KIPP Liberation says, “There was an opportunity with blended to help show that my building full of brilliant brown and black children can learn in such a way that gives them voice, real voice, agency to make choices and good choices for themselves and their peers to ask questions, to push, to challenge, and adults to have to listen to those challenges.” 

The pilot began at KIPP Liberation in 2016 – Pharen’s sixth-grade year – as a single flipped classroom in 8th grade Algebra I. Over the next two years the school’s leadership and teachers began scaling the principles of blended learning — personalized, data-driven, competency-based learning — to other classrooms and content areas. 

Pharen fully benefited from this shift in the instructional model in her final year at KIPP Liberation. The direct, actionable feedback she received from teachers, combined with the freedom in pacing, allowed her to soar.

“Once we implemented blended fully and started moving at our own pace, I just saw a flip [with Pharen],” Mendoza says, “She started to get days and weeks ahead of her peers, and was doing really well with the content.”

Pharen became excited about learning in a new way, particularly in her English Language Arts class and volunteered to take on additional, self-driven projects, like writing a poem from the perspective of a character. 

Mendoza welcomed and nurtured Pharen’s newfound interest to dig deeper into the content. Because Pharen and the rest of the class could advance at an individual pace, Mendoza found more time for one-on-one check-ins with students and to tailor content around their interests. He started seeing more student ownership, even in language students used. “I stopped hearing ‘Your class,’ and started hearing, ‘Our class,” Mendoza says.

Ingram marvels at the change across her campus, but particularly in Mendoza’s classroom. “You’d walk in his room and kids would be comparing texts from Shakespeare to Talib Kweli, or Drake, or another rapper. They were making connections on a high level, being able to express the theme as the authors might, using figurative language. Just having rigorous, enlightening, engaging, and joyful conversations was really unique.” 

“I think this process and her going through blended, has made her realize, ‘I’m not just a high-performing kid, I have things to say that matter, and the adults around here value the things that I say.”

Nicolas Mendoza, 8th grade English Language Arts Teacher

Developing Confidence

In addition to accelerating as a learner, Pharen found a confidence and voice that she had not previously experienced.

“I don’t think she realized how confident she should be, frankly,” Mendoza reflects. “I think this process and her going through blended, has made her realize, ‘I’m not just a high-performing kid, I have things to say that matter, and the adults around here value the things that I say because they are grounded in evidence, and they’re very reasonable, and I know how to express them in a way that is clear and concise.”

Pharen also recognizes her progress. “In previous years, I would not have joined the yearbook. I wouldn’t have joined Art Club. I wouldn’t have joined the mathletes. Now I can actually say that I’m proud of myself for not giving up when challenges came.” 

Pharen’s mom could not be more proud of Pharen’s accomplishments and transformation. 

“From fifth grade to eighth grade, her confidence has gotten way better. She used to down herself so much and I used to struggle with that. I don’t know why she determined she wasn’t smart, she determined she wasn’t pretty, and these were our struggle years, because I refused to let anyone that I’ve created to believe that they’re not intelligent or beautiful.”

Ingram confirms the profound shift and how it changed Pharen, and her impact at school. “Pharen has been really shy. She has not utilized her voice very much in the past, but this year we have called on her to be a leader because she is so overtly confident, overtly, beautifully, powerfully confident. That means even coming to my office to protest the fact that girls have to wear pants. I say, ‘That’s great. Write me a proposal.’ She shows up with a proposal. I don’t know that she would have had that confidence last year.”

Pharen is proud of her achievements at KIPP Liberation. “It makes me feel like I actually left my mark on the school and on its culture. It might not be a big mark, but I know that if I come back to visit, that they’ll remember who I am.”

Postscript: The Courage to Create

Inspired by the support and deeper learning she has received in Mendoza’s classroom, Pharen is writing a science-fiction novel. The story features a teenager named Rayan, which Pharen explains means “care” in Arabic, who is part of a space-force organization to protect marginalized groups on earth. 

Pharen says, ultimately, the character develops confidence in herself and in her identify as an African American woman. “I wanted to write a book like that because, in the sci-fi community, African Americans aren’t really as appreciated as should be, and they’re not really represented in a lot of books … I want to change that.”

Three months into the project, Pharen has already drafted 18 chapters and is contemplating different endings for her novel. She says she would not have pursued this project if she hadn’t developed the drive and ownership that allowed her to excel this year in her academic studies and beyond.

Pharen’s future plans include attending Howard University, a top historically black college in the U.S., and contracting with Child Protective Services. Lilian says her hope is Pharen finds a profession that she truly enjoys, that makes her light shine, and that empowers her make a difference in the world.