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"This is a necessity. It needs to be in EVERY urban school."


Image caption: Patrice Wright works as a sixth-grade ELA teacher at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy

In August, Patrice Wright took a couple hours out of her day to tour the new Junior Achievement Youth Learning Lab presented by the Mallouk Family Foundation with her colleagues. Patrice, a sixth grade English Language Arts teacher at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy (LATCA), didn’t know much about Junior Achievement before driving over that day. “It was my first experience – I was wowed!” The moment she walked through the doors of JA BizTown presented by CommunityAmerica Credit Union, Patrice knew she had to find a way to get her students there.

Patrice, a native Kansas Citian, grew up just five minutes from LATCA. She grew up in the era of Magnet schools, participating in the gifted program. Patrice recalled her regrets at never having the opportunity to visit the spiritual predecessor to JA BizTown as a young person. “When I was in elementary school, there used to be Exchange City. I always wanted to go!” As an adult, Patrice entered the world of education in 1997 as a substitute secretary at Paseo Academy, followed by assuming a role as a budget analyst for Northeast Middle school. 

During her time on the administrative side of education, she often noticed that teachers hired from outside the community struggled to relate to the lives of their students. “They don’t prepare them for urban schools.” Realizing that she could help inspire and support kids growing up in neighborhoods similar to the ones she lived in as a kid, she began to look for opportunities to become a teacher.

Image caption: Kansas City Teacher Residency Logo

The Kansas City Teacher Residency helped formalize her training. “We had class every day for six weeks the first summer. Then we went straight into student teaching for an entire year, Tuesday through Friday, with class on Mondays. The second year we started leading our own class. It was a four-year commitment!” Now, in her seventh year of teaching, she remains committed to empowering students who are poorly served by the current education system. “I teach in the urban community and I will ONLY teach in the urban community. Kids that look like me need to see me.”

Patrice struggles to equip her kids for success using tools that aren’t developed with their lived experiences in mind. “My issue with education is that it is not catered towards minority kids. It’s set up for black and brown kids to fail.” She continued, explaining the uphill battle her students have to find success, “Unfortunately they come in at a deficit starting from Kindergarten. I teach sixth grade, but most of my kids are on a third or fourth grade level.” Starting so far behind leads students to lose interest in their education. Patrice shared, “I try to do fun things and keep them wanting to learn, but they’re just not engaged.”  

Patrice has identified two things that can help turn things around for her discouraged students: real-world connection and the support of caring adults. Junior Achievement is a source of both. After seeing the potential of JA BizTown with her own eyes, Patrice eagerly signed her class up for a field trip. On Thursday, October 28 her students unloaded from the bus and entered the real-world simulation. 

The near immediate shift in one student’s outlook in particular stunned Patrice. She confided the student’s difficulty engaging in class prior to his visit to JA BizTown. “I haven’t seen him awake in class all year. He doesn’t do any work. He does absolutely nothing but come to school. He’s sweet, but so far behind.” But things changed during his JA BizTown experience. “He was SO engaged. He could tell me everything about his job - how much money he made, about taxes - he got to experience everything we had been over before coming!” 

Patrice believes Junior Achievement experiences are valuable for her students because they center on project based learning (PBL). “PBL is the best thing for these kids. They can relate. They’ve been to Price Chopper. They’ve seen Charlie Hustle. They know where Children’s Mercy is.” Patrice also appreciated the lessons leading up to her classes’ JA BizTown visit and how well it fit with the required school curriculum. “We started four weeks prior. It touches on economics, ELA, Math. I can focus on it and not get in trouble.”

Junior Achievement’s immersive curriculum is just one part of the puzzle. The other is connecting kids to a support network of caring adults. Patrice knows from first-hand experience that for kids to build bright futures, they need to have adults in their lives who are invested in their lives on good days AND bad days. Patrice shared how her family growing up played a large role in having a stable foundation to build on. “I’m a minority kid that went through the system and excelled. But I had two loving parents, most of my students don’t have that. If they don’t have a support system, coupled with an education curriculum not built for them, they fail.” 

Patrice hopes to be part of the support system for students who may not get positivity anywhere else in their lives. “If you could hear how some of these parents talk to their’s no wonder why they come to school and their mood is horrible and they’re mad. Of course they don’t want to learn.” Patrice decided to make starting the day off on a positive note a priority. “The first thing I want for them is to have a good day, so we start off with a positive affirmation.” She pointed to a corner of her board reserved for the daily positivity prompt. 

Written down is the phrase ‘I am powerful, confident, and not afraid of being my authentic self.’ Patrice explained the activity, “I put a different one up every day and they write one or two sentences about what it means to them.” Patrice hopes that the exercise helps her kids build resilience and self-worth to make it through the challenges they face. “By the end of the school year they have 175 affirmations written down that can go back to if they’re having a bad day.”

 Patrice’s positivity and determination was hard-won. She developed personal tools for overcoming adversity and trauma over the course of her entire life. She isn’t afraid to share her story with her students, knowing many have already or may eventually face similar experiences. “Growing up in the inner city - in the ‘hood - I saw my first dead body at twelve. He got shot, ran around the corner, and died in my backyard.” Violence and tragedy struck again and again and again in adulthood. “In 2005, my brother was murdered in April. Then one cousin at the start of June and another cousin at the end of June. In 2015, my husband was murdered. My daughter’s dad. I talked to him at 6:30 on a Monday and at 9:30 he was deceased.” 

Patrice refused to let these trials define her world or impede her mission to help others. “ I don’t have time to be negative. I have to keep going for these kids. After my husband, that Wednesday I started my Master’s program. It was a lot, but here I am two Master’s Degrees later.” Patrice is hesitant to call herself a role-model. “Role-models are great, but I don’t consider myself one. I just try to be my authentic self and be real no matter what. I want kids to understand that it’s ok.” 

But Patrice’s passion for what she does is clear, and her enthusiasm for the opportunities Junior Achievement cultivates is undeniable. “This is a necessity. It needs to be in EVERY urban school.” The synergy between skill development and self-esteem building hit all the right notes for Patrice. “This is necessary for these kids, who are already coming in here defeated. It is so good for them to have real-world experience to relate to.”

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