Jacob Allen was the first-ever youth president for the NAACP in Wisconsin and a Teach for America corps member in Chicago. But it wasn’t either of those roles that landed him on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list this past January. Rather, it was his efforts to bring an important topic back into K-12 schools—the idea of a student’s self-identity.
In 2013, Allen and his cofounder Marie Dandie created pilotED Schools, an afterschool program that has a three-tiered curriculum, specifically focusing on developing students in the realms of academic success, civic engagement and social identity. Over the last few years, pilotED has worked with more than 100 school students and families on Chicago’s South and West Sides.
But pilotED isn’t just about helping existing schools anymore. Allen and Dandie will soon be launching the first pilotED brick-and-mortar school—a daunting but unique opportunity. EdSurge sat down with Allen last week to discover how his new school model is tackling themes of trauma and citizenship in the classroom—the stuff that can really impact students’ academic success.
Check out the full interview here as a podcast, or down below as a Q&A.
EdSurge: Welcome, Jacob! So, you are the CEO and founder of pilotED. Can you give us a little bit of an introduction to what exactly that is?
Jacob Allen: Yep, so pilotED started as an effort of my classroom. I was a seventh grade science teacher, and really found that I myself (as well as other educators in the space) kept coming to an issue of trauma—an issue of self that was never addressed in classrooms. So, what we took on, at that time in 2013, was to create an afterschool program—an afterschool program that centers itself on the racial identity, sociological identity and cultural backgrounds of our students. We wanted to make sure that this was incorporated as a discussion space within the schools that our students were attending on the South and West side of Chicago.
That model has since transformed, significantly, into a brick-and-mortar school where the backbone of that school will be that same type of curriculum.
Did you see yourself as eventually becoming a school founder? Was that the intention at the beginning of this?
It really wasn't. The intention at the beginning was to be a teacher that talked about things that we knew were important in our student's lives but weren't being talked about in education. [My cofounder, also a former teacher, and I] ended up meeting at a Starbucks for about five hours every single day and actually creating what now is our curriculum. But at that time, these were just ideas on paper to really address issues of violence, incarceration and trauma that we knew impacted our students academic success.
I'm a bit flabbergasted at the idea of you leaving at the end of the school day going to a Starbucks, and then basically working on this for five hours, everyday. Where does the motivation come from—professional life? Personal life?
The motivation is personal. It's personal in terms of the way that I was raised. I am somebody who is biracial and constantly moved around a lot while growing up. I found myself in classrooms where my identity was never talked about as a student.
It really hit me in the stomach when I arrived at a small liberal arts college in Southern California, where I really didn't look like the classmates that I shared a space with. I realized that it was also the first time that I was learning about issues of race, religion, gender, and sexuality. A lot of these issues that we know help shape our story of self, help shape our perspective of the world, but that it's never talked about until college. That could’ve have some negative ramifications in our lives.
For me, knowing that I would eventually become a school teacher, I wanted to make sure that we, as early on as possible, could incorporate some of those same topics that were considered taboo, or considered off of the record, if you will.
You’re technically launching your first school in 2018, so you've got a couple of years to sort of prep for it. If you had to summarize what the big differences are between what the pilotED School is going to look like and what a regular public school on the Southside of Chicago looks like, what would you say are going to be the biggest differences?
We are going to be building a K-8 elementary school. We have seen amazing schools across the country, but really didn't see the level of identity development or cultural relevancy present in any of these models—especially not ones that later went off to do civic engagement for their middle school students. So, our school will be based on three things: academic excellence, civic engagement, and “sociological identities,” which is really cultural relevancy.
In the Kindergarten through second grade years of our school, all of the classes from social studies to math will incorporate our student's identity, but specifically understanding the story itself. From third grade to fifth grade, we will turn the paradigm and look at the story of others And from sixth to eighth grade, all of our students are required to civically engage with volunteer organizations, local politicians or the church that they go to, to make sure that our students actually take action into their own hands—after learning about themselves and the world that they live in.
The timing is somewhat fascinating, give the presidential election and certain racial tensions that have come to the forefront in this country—even though many of those tensions have really existed for hundreds of years. How is that going play a role in what you choose to do with your students? Or, is that something that function as something more omnipresent part in their lives?
I think it's the last part that you said, in terms of being omnipresent. I think at the end of the day, no matter where we are, no matter what the current climate is politically, racially, socially, we know that students have two options in front of them when it comes to our way of thinking. They can 1) go through the K-12 system and never ask questions, or 2) be asked questions about who they are as individuals in this society, and co-exist with other individuals in society who have never been asked those questions.
One of the big things that we have to realize is that understanding other perspectives, and understanding yourself, is not tied to a certain race. It's not tied to a certain gender. It's not tied to a certain religion. It's simply all encompassing, right? Because we all have that story itself and we all should be able to work alongside others.
And yet, at least from my own experience in the classroom, what I saw was that math, science and English language arts always seemed to take precedence over social studies, civic engagement, and government, and as a result, a lot of my students didn't get that education. How is that particular curriculum going to fit in with all the other subjects that student are going to learn at the first pilotED School?
Everyday, our students will be taking about an hour and a half of our identity programming. It's really about creating a space where student can talk about things like what it means to be potentially undocumented. Or, what it means to be the only female in a group of five male siblings at home.
We also have been re-adapting a curriculum that already exists, a great curriculum out of New York, to make sure that our social studies class, that our math class, that our English class is actually relevant to our student stories, as well.
Let me ask you one more question. Starting a school is really, really hard.
What is the biggest piece of advice or lesson that you taken away from this process thus far that you would offer to other founders who are trying to start a school from scratch?
I would say, look in the mirror and tell yourself two things. One is that you have what it takes, to really undertake anything in this life, so as long as you're moving from a place of love and empathy. And the second thing I would say is to not reinvent the wheel. There are other organizations and schools that are doing snippets of great work. Make sure that you're building a village just as much as you are building a school.