The Conversation

The Art of Learning to Learn

Striving to achieve in New Hanover County Schools

Jessica Eliot

Job: New Hanover High School teacher and co-founder of STAE — Striving to Achieve Excellence — a program in the New Hanover County Schools

First moved to Wilmington: 2002

Favorite spot: It depends on the day and the mood. I like Southport. It’s real Southern to me.


By Dana Sachs

What is STAE?

It’s a program in New Hanover County Schools designed to help students that have potential to go to college but need extra support and guidance. It’s an elective class that starts in sixth (or) seventh grade and goes all the way up through 12th grade. So the students stay with each other all the way through. And here at New Hanover High School, the teacher stays with the same students for four years.

Are these students whose parents did not attend college?

We have students whose parents did go to college and they just need that extra support and guidance. We have some parents who have never been to college, some parents who didn’t finish high school. Some students live with guardians. Some have a single mom who works multiple jobs and doesn’t have time to go through this college process with them.

What might students do in the STAE classroom?

(We help) in any way they need help. We might be working on writing skills or math skills. We monitor their grades in all classes. We bring them on college field trips. We are trying to develop the students so that they’re not only prepared to go to college but so that they’ll have better success once they’re there.

What challenges do your students face at home?

I have a couple that were displaced (by Hurricane Florence). I have had so many students that have moved around foster homes. I have had students that have been homeless in the past. Students that struggle financially. I have students that have to take on a parental role at home, helping with siblings. Almost every one of my students works, most because they need to work, not because they want extra spending money.

Did STAE originate at New Hanover High School?

No. We began creating it in 2011, soon after Dr. Tim Markley took over as superintendent of New Hanover County Schools. He wanted us to have something more local, rather than a national program. I was working in Central Office at the time, and he wanted me to develop a program that could be filtered out to all middle and high schools to serve students that have college potential but just need extra support. I brought in teachers and we thought, “What pieces are they missing? What pieces do they need to be more successful?”

And what did you discover was missing?

A big part of it is grit. These students want to give up once they’re struggling, rather than keep pushing forward. It’s that motivation piece. Having them set goals and what they need to do to get to those goals.

How else do these students benefit from the program?

A lot of times they were never taught those “soft skills”: How they should come into a classroom. What to expect of a classroom. They don’t necessarily have someone guiding them to teach them the importance of education and what they need to do. How communicating with a teacher is different from communicating with a classmate. Or sometimes they’ll put their feet up on a desk and I have to teach them, “That’s not what we do. We need to show respect to the classroom, to each other, and to the teacher.” We talk about how first impressions matter. And obviously, some of them don’t need those lessons. They all have different soft skills. It’s individual to each student.

How do you see your students change over their four years in your classroom?

Ninth grade is “figuring your students out.” A big focus is organization, keeping a planner. That’s a huge thing in any high school. Behavior issues — we unfortunately have a lot of that in ninth grade, across the board. Tenth grade, you get into biology, those tougher courses, where tutors come in and work with them. We really push the importance of grades. Eleventh, you’re starting to do college research and get them prepared for the ACT, SAT. Just to let them realize that now is their year — they have to start making those decisions and stay focused on what they want to do. And then 12th grade, the whole fall semester we worked on college applications. I require them to apply for a certain number of scholarships by certain dates, just to keep them on track. By 12th grade, they’re really my babies. I have all their numbers in my phone. I have their parents’ numbers. I am in constant communication with them.

Can you tell me about any of your former students?

I have a student who is now a lawyer. When he first started (STAE), he was a handful. He was one of the ones I just stayed on constantly. He got into some trouble. We talked about how what he does in and out of school impacts his college choices. By the time he got to college, though, he and a couple of the other STAE students were competing for their grades. They were at different schools, but they stayed in touch. He would send me messages: “I have a higher GPA than so-and-so.” He ended up graduating with honors. Then he decided to go to law school. And his first class in law school, he contacted me and said, “I don’t know if I can do this.” I gave him a little pep talk. He told me his only reason for even graduating high school was because of STAE. And I ended up getting a law school graduation invitation from him and it said, “Without you, I never would have been here.”

Teaching STAE students takes commitment. It can’t be attractive to every teacher.

You have to love what you do. You have to really want to go above and beyond in caring for your students. You have to be invested in making sure that your students are successful in life, beyond just the classroom. It is a huge challenge. They are not the easy students.

For seven years, you had a high-level job at the Board of Education Central Office, but then you went back to teaching. Why?

I missed kids. I was leaving every day thinking, “What did I accomplish that made a difference?” It just wasn’t me.  b

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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