The problem I faced is the staggering number of incoming failing freshmen who are already 20% behind on making it to graduation in 4 short years. After sitting in one too many, unproductive meetings on the issue, I decided to write my new program called the Smart Start Challenge. 
Clearwater, FL

Why I Had To Help the Failing Freshmen

Smart Start Challenge Handbook

The Opening Bell is Ringing and I’m So Excited to Share My Idea

I’ve been teaching for over 10 years and last summer I began creating something special for my struggling high school students. The problem I faced is the staggering number of incoming failing freshmen who are already 20% behind on making it to graduation in 4 short years. After sitting in one too many, unproductive meetings on the issue, I decided to write my new program called the Smart Start Challenge. 

Now my quest is to find every unhappy teenager I can!

There is something about an underdog and I always cheer for those who struggle. It was almost ironic my first teaching position was considered the worst and had gone unfilled for almost a month before I arrived. It was a perfect storm of low 6th and high 8th graders in an “F” rated school. We were all fighting against the uncertainty in those first months of teaching. Today I am qualified for English and Social Studies in 6-12 grades, and weave those content areas together in my classroom. Principals rate me as highly-effective and I have won cash awards for excellence over the years.

Long story short, I jumped into a classroom and went to school at night for my full teaching certification. One position required me to get my Reading endorsement, so I did. I’ve specialized in the misfits, the under-achievers, the low scoring kids who just don’t like school. I understand them, there’s a lot I don’t like about high school either. 

For the first time, in 2019, I was hired at one of the “best” schools in my county. This school was not low income or Title 1, they have money, they have involved parents, they have all the bells and whistles from all the corporations involved with education. 

Turns out, this school has the same problems as the others; under-performing and unmotivated students. The same “Achievement Gap” was there. I revised my grading policy and had success with standards based lessons that connected with students and their interests. I shook things up and it worked, even with Covid, I won another prize award for teaching. This time in a program I decided to replicate, but in my style and my passion for the world. 

In August 2020, the incoming freshman class statistics were bad but the drop out rate at 5,000 PER DAY in the USA was just disgusting. It feels like a high graduation rate is seen as the prize of the school board, pushing students out instead of actually producing thinking individuals. We have this “Achievement Gap”, and it is not getting any better – even with every MTSS, BPIS, ACT waiver and 504 plan you can write. (All kinds of academia solutions that are not working for every student.)

My realization was these teenagers are going through an identity crisis and need guidance from a trusted source. Popular culture and various problems have confused many teens, most of whom lack resources to figure it out.  Some parents do not exist, others are frankly part of the problem. Whatever the reason for being stuck, teens have to learn how to move onward and upward.

When you teach students that change begins within, you have to live it yourself.

This past summer, I could not sit back and ignore the problem any longer. I spent years working within a school system that is broken and not being fixed in my opinion. I took every training and followed every initiative my school board purchased from some “expert”.  Look up my credentials, I have been at some incredible schools working on this issue over the years.

The problem is nationwide and growing. Students are still falling through the cracks at an alarming rate. Who knows what the impact of COVID will be. Teen suicides are in the news. If I can think of a solution, I have to make it happen.

So I created a program, unlike any other and based on my success in my classroom. The curriculum is written and presented by a favorite, virtual teacher who knows the inside info to help struggling teenagers.

The Smart Start Challenge is a 31-day brain training workout. It is designed to test a teen on their thinking and attitudes about their future. The material includes identity and values clarification, communications and problem solving. It uses the same research and evidence-based teaching practices from my classroom and aligns with many academic standards for 9th and 10th grade.

The objective of my Challenge is to disrupt negative thinking and empower teens with a new vision of their future. The Challenge Handbook is twisted sideways and requires a reader to peek inside. This small change forces you to open it up more to continue reading – a first for many reluctant readers. And, as a competition, students have a different perspective on the reading and writing activities thanks to a point scoring system.

The Challenge also includes an online connection with social media and tasks relating to improving a teen’s digital reputation. I want to engage teens in exercises that have real-world value and show them the benefits of good communication. The program is getting a positive response in the initial launch with former students doing the beta testing.

After working on the program all summer, I was ordered back into a germy building with COVID and decided that I needed to pursue this Challenge instead of teaching. I was unwilling to risk my health for a paycheck. I was not given an opportunity to teach online, if I didn’t go into the building, I could quit.  So, I did.

When you teach students to pursue their dreams, you have to do it too.

I have a dream, I had to go after it. Believe me it was not easy to decide to leave my school, but I had to. I know I have saved some student’s lives, and I know I really have to try it again on a bigger scale. It is funny because I am not exactly sure if I am brave, or crazy. Time will tell I guess.

“When you know what the rules are and what you need to do to win, it just takes practice to make it a reality. Anything is possible!”  

While COVID forced me out of the classroom, it motivated me to develop something special for my students. At this point, my ideas are published and organized into a virtual event for teens. The website is online and social media is underway. I created a Co-Teacher Guide, and encourage teachers and youth group leaders to host a Challenge locally. It can qualify as a MTSS-Tier-2 and Tier-3 and RTI academic intervention for targeted students with the weekly group sessions.

The month-long program is designed to develop independent learners with a strong growth mindset and service learning. The virtual competition format is written for weekly coaching and sessions are being organized for groups now. If a student is interested in private coaching, I offer it as a 15 minute format for 31 days for optimal effectiveness as a MTSS/RTI Tier-3 academic support. The standards are embedded and a final project could help students reach Abraham Maslowe’s actualization. 

My hypothesis and method to close the “Achievement Gap” is ready to be tested. The list of students who have been empowered by service learning is extensive, here is my version for teens today.  In 2021, I am working every day to find those frustrated, unhappy teens who need to get into the Smart Start Challenge. If you know any, please send them my way!

Ms. Kirsten Peck and

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