Friday is the last day of school at DeLaSalle Education Center, a charter high school in Kansas City that primarily enrolls students who haven’t succeeded elsewhere.
It’s also a time of reflection for those who taught them.
At 22, first-year Teach For America corps member Pranav Nanda isn’t that much older than his students. At the start of the school year, Nanda worried students might not respect someone they saw as a peer. But over time, he came to see his age as an advantage.
“I have a Facebook. I have a Snapchat. I have a Twitter just like them. Being able to take a step back and get to know them, that’s been a really cool experience,” Nanda said.
But it’s also been a tumultuous year at DeLaSalle. The former executive director, Mark Williamson, was abruptly replaced midyear, and that’s created uncertainty about what’s next for the charter school that’s been a last resort for Kansas City students for decades. Usually TFA corps members spend two years in the same building, but a day before school let out for summer, Nanda still didn’t know if he’d be back.
“Obviously we’ve had so much going on,” Nanda said. “I’ve really tried to focus in on this year. I have a lot of upperclassmen. I have a lot of seniors, and for them, this is one of the biggest moments in their life. I want to be 140 percent in with them and celebrating what they’re going to do after graduation.”
Nanda said he's learned a lot at De La Salle.
Back in late September, for example, Nanda got some feedback from Kelly Lightcap, the school’s associate director of data and assessment.
“What’s your procedure for your word wall?” Lightcap asked, gesturing to the blank bulletin board behind Nanda.
“To be perfectly honest, I forgot about it for a while,” Nanda admitted.
Lightcap told Nanda his lesson hit a snag when he had to stop to explain what several words meant.
“I would front load with that because you cut off the momentum of the reading and comprehending by stopping and saying about a minute about the words,” she said.
“Start with the vocab,” Nanda agreed.
It was a weighty lesson plan – Nanda had started with spoken word about Black Lives Matter before moving onto the lynching of Emmett Till and the protest poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Between poems, Nanda asked his students to reflect on a time when they felt disoriented or afraid upon finding themselves in unfamiliar territory. To get them started, he shared a story about his family vacationing in Italy and not being able to find their hotel.
But students come to DeLaSalle with very different experiences.
One student talked about a family friend getting shot. Another student said his dad lost both legs after being hit by a car.
“So kind of dealing with that.” Nanda cleared his throat. “Thank you for sharing.”
Nanda never got around to adding vocabulary to the word wall. It’s as blank in May as it was in September.
He bookended the year with two lessons he says were favorites – the “This I Believe” essay contest and an “I Have A Dream” speech in the style of Martin Luther King’s famous oration.
“I think we as a society have this kind of perspective of what a childhood is, what experiences kids have,” Nanda said. “A lot of the time, that’s us putting expectations on them and not letting them have the opportunity to share their experiences.”
He said, yes, students come to DeLaSalle with considerable challenges, but they’re also more resilient than anyone gives them credit for.
“These students get a bad reputation,” Nanda said. “One thing I can say after building relationships with them is they’re going to be very successful. There are some incredibly intelligent, hardworking brilliant students who I know are going to make a lasting impact on their community.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.