Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
Wonkathon question: How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?
The short answer is to do both concurrently and make learning a fun, social experience that challenges students to improve their abilities while helping classmates get better as well.
One program that simultaneously improves both academic and socio-emotional learning is the Fast Break accelerated learning program. Fast Break attracts young people and persuades them to work hard because it operates like a high-performance sports team, orchestra, robotics team or military unit. The program emphasizes teamwork, daily practice of fundamentals, daily feedback on individual and team performance, effective time management, continual communication among staff and students on how and why to do better the next day, continual opportunities to integrate theory and practice and to apply skills in game-like (“real world”) settings, expectations of helping teammates to improve, and the targeted use of information technology to diagnose and improve abilities and communicate results instantly to accountable professionals and those who foot the bill (boards and taxpayers).
Members of the best teams like the best companies want to be driven, want discipline, want to exceed expectations, and want to be part of a group with a higher purpose and winning mission. Moreover, they want to stay together long enough to produce excellence. Sustained time together in search of a noble cause also helps teenagers and young adults develop what they want most of all—good friends.
Fast Break heretofore has helped hundreds of under-employed, out-of-school young adults in Los Angeles, Detroit and other Michigan cities obtain career or college entry. The vast majority of students wished they had the program in high school. Lamentably, today’s traditional high school benefits only half the students and leaves behind most minority students from low-income backgrounds. For high schools to run this proven, popular program, they would have to replace their traditional “assembly line” design with Fast Break’s whole-brain, immersion-type, team-taught course that quickly improves basic skills as it helps students gain career direction and grow emotionally.
The payoff is that Learners achieve up to 2+ grade-level gains (1–2 Educational Functioning Levels) in reading and math in just two to three months while becoming functional in basic computer applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation graphics. Three-fourths of students graduate by meeting all academic, attendance and behavioral standards. A similar percentage of graduates in Los Angeles, Detroit, and other Michigan cities have moved ahead to career-track jobs, college, or the military without needing remediation.
These successes are due to Fast Break’s intensive schedule of four to eight hours per day for eight to sixteen weeks, team collaboration design, focus on project completion and integration of basic skills with emotional intelligence, and employability skills. Fast Break is team-taught, computer-assisted, community-oriented, project- and competency-based. Cohorts of twenty-five to sixty students are led by a cross-disciplinary team of three to six instructors who collaborate in real time much like coaches of sports teams or managers of successful business enterprises. It’s motto: “Everybody over the bar.”
While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell called the model “one of the best things he had seen.” Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews called its band of brothers and sisters teaming strategy “brilliant!” The late Professor Martin Haberman, who received the American Education Research Association (AERA) Legacy (lifetime achievement) award in 2009 for his research and training more urban teachers than anyone over his fifty-year career, believed in the research underpinning Fast Break and that the skills it provided were essential for success in work and life in the twenty-first century.
With school shutdowns causing many students to lose attachment with learning, Fast Break would help them refresh and quickly add to their skills while renewing their interest in school. The program also benefits participants by narrowing skill gaps, reducing disciplinary incidents, and helping students find purpose in their lives.
Along with rapid academic gains, Fast Break’s nurturing yet disciplined learning environment helps students gain self-confidence and believe in their future. The same cohort of faculty and students stays together long enough to:
- Instill self-knowledge: How to capitalize on one’s strengths (e.g., dominant thinking styles and high-performance patterns) and appreciate the strengths of others.
- Instill compassion (“empathy with an action plan”): Through sharing and systematically analyzing personal success stories, students learn what classmates are like when at their best and how they can support one another’s success pattern.
- Revitalize learning desire: Engage internal motivation creating clarity, identity, independence, and belonging; learning fun through engendering curiosity and discovery; cultivating emotional safety to mistakes as a path to learning.
- Fill content gaps: Diagnose and fill in students’ informational and learning gaps that result from experiencing various life challenges at home (e.g., divorce, separation, financial upsets, illness, re-locating) and at school (e.g., unskilled teaching experiences, bullying moments, social isolation).
- Practice making choices and tradeoffs: Help students learn how to make fact-based choices and tradeoffs. Decision-making experience through small group projects both in school and the community creates clarity in preparing for complexities of high school and life.
- Develop emotional intelligence. Coach students in the practice of using language to safely and effectively de-escalate challenging behavior and emotional expressions. Teach parents how to lighten the emotional load at home.
- Instill desire to help others and exceed expectations: Collaborate to complete projects; develop and carry out community service; learn and practice outstanding customer service.
- Explore and plan careers: Prepare for challenging courses and the world beyond high school. Career interest inventories and skill development pathways. Identify potential careers through matching with student interests, thinking styles, and high-performance patterns. Career speech to defend written career plan in front of faculty and peers.
About Barry Stern’s experience with the Fast Break model. He initially learned about the model as director and principal investigator of the three-year National Science Foundation-funded project to replicate in Los Angeles the Focus:Hope Detroit Fast Track program. Subsequently, he oversaw the State of Michigan’s $4.8 M Operation Fast Break initiative to expand the program to another seven sites, including a community college, high school, two local workforce development agencies, a residential vocational rehab agency, and two non-profit consortia. In the mid-2010s Dr. Stern and a colleague trained teachers in three New Orleans charter high schools in several of Fast Break’s tools and techniques.