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Educator's nonprofit group helps lift students in poor-performing schools

Educator's nonprofit group helps lift students in poor-performing schools
Educator's nonprofit group helps lift students in poor-performing schools 03:30

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- Students in some of the country's worst-performing schools are making the grade, thanks to a nonprofit led by a man whose life mission is motivated by a childhood science fair experience.

At Caroline Davis Intermediate School in San Jose, teacher Thinley Shrestha shows her 8th graders the process of solving a math problem can be more important than getting the right answer.

"Kids have been more willing to try and make mistakes and know that it's OK," Shrestha said.

It's one lesson she's learned in her school's work with Partners in School Innovation, the San Francisco-based educational nonprofit Dr. Derek Mitchell has led since 2009. It works with underperforming schools where 75 percent or more of the students are low-income children of color.

"Partners transforms teaching and learning in some of the most challenged schools so students thrive," Mitchell said.

He was about the same age of the math students when he was inspired to make a difference. The precocious 13-year-old from Chicago's South Side competed in a science fair on the other side of town and saw that not everyone gets an equal education.

"The school had libraries full of books. Our school didn't," Mitchell recalled. "I had the sense in my gut that something was wrong."

His mother accompanied him to the science fair. "So I asked my mom, 'Mom, why do white kids get all this stuff and we don't?' She goes, 'I don't know, and that's not what we're here for.'"

And when he shared his Honorable Mention prize with his principal, both of them cried.

He remembered telling her, "I'm feeling bad about the entire experience. She said, 'Derek, I don't know why things are this way. But maybe youll be the one to fix it.'"

That's what he's doing. Hundreds of public schools and districts from the Bay Area and seven states have hired Mitchell and his team through the years to coach their teachers and leaders.

He said typically, before they start working with a school or district, test scores in reading would be in the low teens for reading, and even lower for math. After the three- to five-year partnership, the proficiency scores often go to up to the 50 percent mark or more.

Principal Ginelyn Kudsi says the honor roll at Caroline Davis Intermediate swelled eight percent.

"It's made a huge difference for us," Kudsi said. "More than 60 percent of our students got a 3.0 or higher."

The program taught Mrs. Shrestha to collaborate with other educators on best teaching methods, build empathy for students, understand how they learn, and give them freedom to make mistakes.

"The results are that students are more confident about themselves and their learning, especially in math," she said.

Superintendent Kimberly Carter of Battle Creek Schools in Michigan credits Mitchell at the top.

"He helps me realize that you can truly create change for every kid and that you can make sure that every kid succeeds," Carter said.

"It's about helping all of us recognize that every single kid has powerful futures," said Mitchell.

So for partnering with some of the country's most underperforming schools to help low-income students of color thrive, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Dr. Derek Mitchell.


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