The pandemic has had profound effects on every student and educator, and has demonstrated the inviolable need for close relationships. Angela Jerabek, founder and executive director of the BARR Center, sits down with host William C. Moyers to discuss the greatest strengths, liabilities and lessons for education systems around the country. And, as we reframe our ideas of school and learning, she considers where we should go from here.
0:00:13 William Moyers
Here we are again, a new season in our award-winning series of Let's Talk podcasts. Produced for you by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. I'm your host, William C. Moyers, welcome and thanks for joining us. Today we discuss how to give students their best shot at growing up into resilient young adults. Specifically by building strong school communities that support each student's success by improving what happens to them at school. From school culture and climate to the influence and effectiveness of teachers and school educators. Nobody knows this better than Angela Jerabek, the Founder and Executive Director of BARR Center, based in Minnesota. Welcome, Angela!
0:00:56 Angela Jerabek
Thank you so much!
0:00:57 William Moyers
Our focus today really is in how we are going to build resilient student in a post-COVID world. Before we dive into that, I wanna ask you where does your personal passion for the subject come from?
0:01:10 Angela Jerabek
So I'm really driven, quite frankly, by the incredible talent that our young people have. And quite frankly, the amount of dedication that our educators have. I mean, educators chose this profession to try to really support young people. And I don't feel like the system necessarily is always aligned to realize that. But there is just incredible amounts of gifts that exist both with our educators as well as with our students. So, a passion becomes in, as you'll hear, really kind of how do we disrupt the system to realize those.
0:01:44 William Moyers
And you were a K-12 teacher for a long time.
0:01:47 Angela Jerabek
I was! So I'll kind of even lean into how BARR began. So, I was a Licensed K-12 Music Instructor. And then I had my license in Secondary School Counseling. Started my career off in a first-ring suburb right outside of Minneapolis: St. Louis Park High School. And I went five years running where half the students failed the class. So, I was not feeling particularly successful in this career choice. So after the fifth year, I went to the Principal at the time to say, 'I think I should resign. Clearly, I do not have what it takes.' And he was really a fantastic administrator and said, 'Yeah, this isn't you. It's not our school. This is the National Average. About half the ninth graders fail a course. You should really come up with another system to be able to change that.' And those words were really incredibly kind of encouraging. I also will name—I was pretty young and naïve and didn't know the issues of legacied school systems. So I was like, 'Let's change it!' And so, that was the beginning in 1999. Of BARR.
0:02:52 William Moyers
BARR meaning Building Assets and Reducing Risks. Talk a little bit more about that.
0:02:58 Angela Jerabek
Absolutely. So the model is really predicated on two pillars. One pillar is relationships. So, I think it's becoming more and more well-known that human beings learn more you know kind of function better when you have healthy, positive relationships. When you talk about schools a lot of people talk about the necessity of healthy relationships from school staff to students. But what BARR really leans into is three types of relationships: Yes staff to students, also students to students. But the other key piece is staff to staff. How can you have those adult relationships be healthy because it both models it for students but quite frankly, you're gonna have to have some difficult conversations with that second pillar. So the second pillar is data. We've gotta have transparency in data. So the math teacher needs to know that even though William's doing nothing in math class, turns out he's a rockstar in social studies. So, you need to have this perception of who the student is by having multiple vantage points. You've gotta have that transparency in data. But the other really key piece is you have to have qualitative data. And there is so much qualitative data that is always sitting in schools and adults see or sense and feel, and you've gotta have a mechanism to move that data forward. So you can have a conversation that really describes who the student is. So when you put those two pillars together, that really is what grounds the BARR model. Which back to your point it's building assets, it's yes, like we need to like, you know, have students be doing better, but it also is reducing risks.
0:04:30 Angela Jerabek
So how do you catch things that, you know, are gonna be a precursor to either substance use or mental health issues or—William I think I'd shared this story with you before but I think it's such a strong illustration of things. But when we first put this model in place in one of our large schools in California, it was the second week of school. Three teachers sat down 'cause it's always predicated on having these, you know, shared conversations, and one teacher says, 'I've got three girls skipping class every Friday and Monday. Someone's gotta call 'em in and give 'em detention. Fourteen-year-old girls, second week of school.' Next teacher says, 'You know, now that you mention it, when I walk through the cafeteria, those three girls, they're not sitting at the ninth grade table. They're hanging up against the wall with a bunch of senior boys. Someone better give 'em a quiet lunch.' Next teacher says, 'You know, they're not making dress code either. They should get a dress code violation.' So we always coach the school so the person there that we're coaching takes this information in, they do a little recon work and it turns out those girls are being sex trafficked. They were fourteen years old, they were all in foster care, and they were being shipped out on Thursday night, they were being shipped back on Monday night. Well not—not any individual observation especially in Week 2 of school, would have alerted the adults to this level of concern if we hadn't put this data together. So when you talk about reducing risks, it literally is saving lives. As well as having students do better in classes.
0:05:54 William Moyers
Before we go to the post-COVID world, how do we know Angela that—how do school systems know that BARR works?
0:06:00 Angela Jerabek
Mmm-hmm. [smiles] So we have been really fortunate. I'll go back to, you know, kind of Angela Jerabek's kind of life is in 1999, I put this in place and we initially had SIG funding. So, State and grant, you know, and set up grant funding. And we were really watching risk reduction. So, tobacco use and binge drinking and kind of all those risky behaviors. And we saw a precipitous drop right away. So in the first year, not only were those behaviors going down when you had adults looking, we had the failure rate dropped in half in the first year. But then, we actually applied for after ten years, an I-3 grant. So it was a big research grant under the Obama Administration. And did rigorous testing. We did randomized control trials within schools across the country. And so we went to Appalachia, we went to big districts in Boston, Baltimore, Dallas, South side of Chicago, charter schools, and we consistently tested the model. To say does this work everywhere? Does this work with all students, each and every kid? And we were able to show over and over again at the highest level of research that the model consistently works. So, you've got lots of iron-clad research to be able to say that it does.
0:07:10 William Moyers
And now, here we are! Emerging in a post-COVID world after an unprecedented pandemic. You talked Angela about the importance of relationships and yet in this COVID pandemic, relationships have suffered. So what happens?
0:07:32 Angela Jerabek
What I think really what has happened is I think people have recognized the necessity of relationships. I think schools in the past potentially were able to take them for granted. Because the students were there. Because other it was there. And now we are really recognizing that relationships are a critical part of learning. And that in particular, what are our—what is a school's purpose? And I think that one of the things that we've also recognized in this past year is a school's purpose is broader than just developing critical thinkers. We have to have individuals who can build and maintain relationships. Especially among differences. So, I think that that's what COVID in particular has really drawn kind of the curtain back on. Saying we need to step back and say what are we actually doing here. And I think that's been a really, really important piece.
0:08:20 William Moyers
Phew. We could talk about this for a long time! But coming out of the pandemic, how do we begin to rebuild our schools? What's gonna be needed?
0:08:30 Angela Jerabek
Mmm-hmm. I think one of the first things is even the idea of rebuilding. What we're really talking about is we cannot go back to what we had before. What we had before was not working for a whole lot of students. So this pause has given us time to actually say what should we be creating [chuckles]. To actually work for our students. And I've been using the phrase lately, a lot of times, there's always a lot of conversation of we have to get our students ready for school. How do you get the five-year-old ready for school? And I think the focus needs to be, 'How do we get our schools ready for our students now?' So, what do we need to do as a system, as an organization, to make sure that we're meeting these students' needs. 'Cause what you're talking about in particular, after COVID, basically every, you know, student now has at least got a one on the aces. Everyone has some, you know, trauma. Many have had even more exacerbated by this. But you have to be able to have a system ready to receive that, to identify that, and get the individuals the care that they need. So they can do well and become critical thinkers. But like we can't go back to 'Let's open the math book, Chapter 3, Problem 4.'
0:09:36 William Moyers
Hmm. We talk so much about students of course we do, we want our students to do well. BARR has a big focus towards students. But we've gotta worry about our educators coming out of COVID as well. Can you talk a little bit about educators particularly how they've been affected and changed by COVID?
0:09:55 Angela Jerabek
Mmm-hmm. I think that that's a—oh I'm so pleased that you're asking this. I mean they've really been on the front lines. I mean, after we talk about, you know, obviously medical care, the next piece really has been these individuals who are trying to teach in a platform they've never taught before. And I think the other piece is they are receiving information that they've never received before. We had a school in New York right when COVID happened where there was a family that reached out to a teacher and said, you know, it was a single mother and she's like, 'I don't know if I'm gonna make it. I'm in an Emergency Room,' you know, they had a person calling said, 'Would you—would you take my son? If I don't make it through COVID, will you take my son?' But like that type of outreach was occurring and this teacher said, 'Absolutely.' But the role that these educators are taking on is they are learning what the home situation is has really been daunting in terms of the amount of pressure they're under. And then, you know, trying to make sure that the students are not experiencing learning loss. So, how do you engage and then—and then the entire equity issue. You know, people don't have devices, and they don't have you know connectivity, there—I mean I just have been tremendously impressed. I just heard about a school in San Francisco and there has been over 250—this team of teachers are driving to some students' homes. So if they—if the students aren't logging in, they're driving in you know just to the school—to students' homes, to be like, 'Are you okay?' You know, 'How can we kind of check on you?' But after we get through this, we absolutely need to be spending time on—are our adults okay that are doing this just like we're talking about the same issue, you know, in terms of our medical care workers.
0:11:30 William Moyers
Angela, we have about five minutes left. Coming out of COVID into 2021 and beyond, are there some aspects of school experience that will never go back to what was considered quote "normal" before? [uses air quotes]
0:11:48 Angela Jerabek
Mmm-hmm. I think a number are. So, I'll go back to if this was a year ago, and we did a poll, to all the schools across the country and said 'How many of you could do a K-12 distance learning platform?' [Moyers chuckles, nods] I think you would have a very low number of hands go up. I think the reality is, everyone has done something. So I think that what we've first of all learned is a lot of the parameters that we imposed and said, 'We can't every do that,' that's not true. So, a lot of the things that we said are impossible, that—that is not the case.
0:12:21 Angela Jerabek
For example, if there is a student who says, 'I wanna take an advanced level math class,' the school will no longer be able to say, 'Oh we don't offer that.' Because somebody offers that. They can do it remotely. So this access in particular to rigorous courses is a thing. There's been talk about, 'Will there ever be a Snow Day again?' So it's snowing. So we have, you know, virtual instruction. I think the other piece is educators I believe have really started to break up those silos. To realize that we need to work as a team and I can't just stay with my math department. And I think that is something that we will never go back to. [Moyers nods] So I think there's many things but I think those are ones kind of right away that—that won't be something that will ever have to be a barrier again in the future.
0:13:07 William Moyers
Probably our last question, Angela: how will BARR adjust in a post-COVID world to meet the challenges and the opportunities ahead?
0:13:17 Angela Jerabek
Mmm-hmm. So one of the things that happened right when COVID occurred is we had besides the fact that we really work on improving the system within the school, we also really work on connecting our teachers between schools. So we work with a hundred and eighty schools all across the country. And we had three hundred plus teachers calling in weekly to share ideas. So, as COVID's happening, and they're like, 'We're going virtual, how did you do this? We're gonna try to do a—a virtual graduation, what's the best practices?' But our schools are working together so, so closely. And so I think in terms of BARR, we're gonna continue to be leaning into that community that we've built. You know, and that the amount of ideas that have come together and the trust that's established. I think that's just gonna continue to grow.
0:14:02 William Moyers
How do schools find out more about BARR?
0:14:05 Angela Jerabek
So there's a website, www.barrcenter.org.
0:14:09 Angela Jerabek
And that's probably their best and easiest place. [smiles]
0:14:12 William Moyers
Angela Jerabek, thank you so much for taking the time to share with us the work that you're doing through BARR. And the hope that you continue to have for students and administrators in school systems all across this country. Thanks for joining us!
0:14:28 Angela Jerabek
Thank you so much.
0:14:29 William Moyers
[turns to camera]
Please join us again for another edition of Let's Talk. And make sure to tell your friends and family, colleagues and fellow travelers, students and teachers. To check out our podcasts too. And remember, together we are building a healthier, wholesome, and happier tomorrow, one day and one life at a time. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay the course.