By Kevin Gray
For a recent homework assignment, Farrell Sharkey ’06 asked her first-grade students to answer a question: If you could go anywhere, where would you go? Most of the responses—child-focused restaurants and amusement parks—were expected. Some were not.
“A few students had written ‘college,’ and one even wrote ‘Lafayette College’ specifically and had drawn a big house with ‘Lafayette’ across the top,” says Sharkey, who teaches at Young Scholars Frederick Douglass Charter School, Philadelphia, Pa.
The exercise demonstrated amazing progress from a year ago. These students now, even at 6 years old, are beginning to see college as a real option for them.
In 2010, Douglass Charter was identified as a chronically underachieving school by the School District of Philadelphia. As one of the district’s lowest-performing schools, it was eligible for turnaround in the first year of the district’s Renaissance Initiative, which meant receiving an entirely new staff and leadership team.
“The main focus was school and classroom culture,” says Sharkey, a history and government & law graduate who worked previously for Teach for America. “We started the year with a set of school core values, and consistent systems and routines to send the message to students and families that we are laser focused on our goal of getting students ready for college.”
One strategy was to name each homeroom after a college.
“I knew that I would be better able to build a strong classroom culture around the college I attended,” says Sharkey. “With donations from various offices and people at Lafayette including Pam Brewer, Dean Stewart-Gambino, Bruce McCutcheon, and Janine Casey, I covered my classroom with Lafayette pennants, posters, pompoms, and postcards.”
Now, Sharkey’s first-graders use a Lafayette foam finger to give each other “shout-outs,” and they decorate the classroom’s “Wall of Fame,” where exceptional student work hangs, with Lafayette postcards. Sharkey also tosses a stuffed Lafayette Leopard to students who are especially attentive during lessons.
“I chose to bring the Lafayette experience to my students because my time at Lafayette gave me so many opportunities,” says Sharkey, “and I want my students to feel that same sense of possibility.”