Jordan Weymer is the principal of East Boston’s McKay K-8 School, which is the College Success Academy’s newest program site and the home of all its East Boston programming. Weymer is credited with turning around the school’s academic performance in just a few short years. He sat down with us to share his insights about the College Success Academy and its impact on the McKay School community.
Photo: Angela Rowlings, Boston Herald
Why is Steppingstone’s College Success Academy (CSA) important to the McKay School and to East Boston in general?
It’s incredible to have what Scholars have in fifth grade, twice a week after school. As a school, we’re in an era of high accountability, so with that comes a natural need for our curriculum to focus on the hard skills – things like standards and mastery and being at grade level academically. We try to embed grit and perseverance into our students, and we try to create an environment so students feel pride in themselves, but we only have limited time during the day. What Steppingstone has done is explicitly work on some of those soft skills that would not be addressed during the course of the regular school day, and the results of that are huge.
“There is a level of confidence that Scholars bring that I didn’t expect. It’s important to be proud of yourself and to walk with your head held high, and I see that in them. You’re changing kids’ minds about themselves.”
Do you think CSA fills a distinct need, either for the McKay specifically or for East Boston?
For starters, I think Steppingstone fills the college mindset gap. That’s so important, especially in a community like East Boston, which is made up of so many first-generation arrivals. The majority of the kids we serve don’t have someone close to them who’s gone to college, so we’re really trying to change generations of lives. If a Scholar goes to college and is the first in their family to do that, then college becomes the reality and the expectation for future generations. If we do this work right and we do this work well, its legacy will continue long after we’re gone.
We tell kids that if they do well in sixth and seventh and eighth grades, they will have options. We tell them, “You have career options. You don’t have to work in a restaurant or at Logan Airport or as a landscaper.” Not to say those aren’t honorable, admirable jobs, but students may not otherwise know that they can take other career paths. And that’s a gap Steppingstone really fills: you talk about college, and you get it in kids’ heads that college is a possibility and college is a reality. We want kids to know, “I’m going to college. I’m not just making a four year commitment when I head to high school; I’m setting myself up for a longer journey.”
When you came to the McKay, what were some of the challenges you faced, and do you feel the Steppingstone partnership has helped combat those challenges in any way?
There was almost no out-of-school time at the McKay when I started. There was a YMCA program that was fee-based, and there was America Scores, and that was it for a school of 700 kids in a neighborhood with relatively few constructive options.
A school is a living, breathing organism, and there are incredible messages that schools send out to families and communities and stakeholders. And when you walk into a building that is high-functioning and high-energy, it’s infectious. There are so many pieces to the puzzle that makes a school feel that way, and partnering with Steppingstone has been one of those key puzzle pieces.
Is there anything that stands out in CSA classes or in your interactions with CSA Scholars specifically?
“The feeling that I got when I was in that Steppingstone room, was that this is a safe space where kids feel confident in themselves, in their peers, and in the adults supporting them. And I think that that’s remarkable.”
I went to the CSA poetry slam, and there was this level of self-realization and sharing and honesty that blew me away. The Scholars described their lives, what was going on at home, and their connections to the current events surrounding immigration and were completely, totally supported by their fellow Scholars in a way that was just beautiful to see.
I used to teach third grade math, and one day the principal was observing my class when I made a mistake, and four hands shot up in the air to say, “Mr. Weymer! You made a mistake!” After class, I went down to the principal’s office to debrief, and he said, “I just want to commend you, because you have created an environment in your classroom where your kids feel confident enough in themselves to question you.” And so the feeling that I got when I was in that Steppingstone room, was that this is a safe space where kids feel confident in themselves, in their peers, and in the adults supporting them. And I think that that’s remarkable.
Academic success can only come when students feel safe and confident and comfortable coming to school. Because if they don’t, no matter how hard we work, it’s never going to be as successful as it can be. Our priority is ensuring that students exceed academically, but that will never come at the cost of making an environment less supportive. During school, they’re getting the message that it’s a safe place, that they’re accepted here, that they can make mistakes here, that we’re learning here. And then they get that same message from Steppingstone in the afternoon and it begins to take hold in how they succeed.