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Meet Edmentum’s 2019 Educator of the Year: Steve Clark

Meet Edmentum’s 2019 Educator of the Year: Steve Clark

Steve Clark keeps snacks stocked in his office at Ortega High School (OHS), a traditional continuation high school in Lake Elsinore, California, because he knows he’ll have a better chat with the 11th and 12th graders he sees everyday if they aren’t hungry. As a resource specialist program (RSP) teacher, Mr. Clark works with students who are severely credit deficient, specifically supporting a caseload of special education students. He understands that building a positive relationship with his students—even through simply offering them a snack—is crucial to their success. 

This month, Mr. Clark was named 2019 Edmentum Educator of the Year. He was recognized for his unwavering dedication to his students, along with his creative and effective use of technology, which has been pivotal to the tremendous success of OHS’ credit recovery program. As the winner, Mr. Clark has received a $100 Amazon gift card, and he will be attending the 2019 ISTE Conference & Expo in Philadelphia as an official guest of Edmentum.

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Mr. Clark about what his involvement with the credit recovery program is, how his students are succeeding with Courseware, and what being Educator of the Year means to him. But, first, we wanted to know how he got started teaching.

It’s clear you’re someone who is passionate about making a difference. You worked in local government for 13 years, and you were pursuing a doctorate in public administration before you turned to teaching. Could you tell me about when and why you decided to become an educator?

When I started pursuing my doctorate in public administration, I just hit a point where I felt like I was burning out. My friend was a teacher in Lake Elsinore Unified School District, and he said, "Hey, why don't you come be a substitute teacher while you're doing nothing? Check it out, and see what you think."

I went into my first teaching job at David Brown Middle School. It was awesome. I wound up teaching computers as a long-term sub there for my first year. My buddy said, "Hey, you know what, this may be the thing. This may be the calling." I had to stop my doctoral program, put it on hiatus, and go back to get my teaching credential, but I really felt like special ed was the greatest area of impact. I felt like that was the group I really could do the most good with.

After you got your special education credentials, you taught as an RPS at a middle school before you came to Ortega High School. What has it been like working at the high school level?

When I got into this job, I had never taught high school before. It's been extremely rewarding, and working at a continuation school is even crazier because you get new kids every quarter. You're touching a lot of lives over here. I really feel like my heart and my soul and everything is full of what we've been able to accomplish—not only for our community but for our kids—because I feel like we're making the community of Lake Elsinore a better place by putting these well-equipped kids out into the world.

You are using Courseware in your credit recovery program at Ortega High School, and you’ve taken the unique approach of also requiring students to take Cornell-style notes on the course content. Can you tell me about how you use the two together to help meet your instructional needs?

We shifted the way we administered the curriculum in credit recovery with Courseware because we know kids are smart and they're inherently going to look for the easiest and most efficient way to do things. So, we had to find a way to bridge the gap. So, they log in to Courseware, click through a tutorial, read and spend time, and take detailed Cornell-style notes.

They turn those in to the credit recovery teacher for their grade for the class. This did a couple things. The average daily usage in Courseware, average weekly usage, time-on-task, and all those things shot through the roof. Now, we know they're forced to read and synthesize things. And, the Cornell notes is kind of like a sneaky way to force them to retain some of the information. Since doing that, we've seen a tremendous amount of improvement in our growth, in our success rate, of students passing credit recovery courses using the Courseware.

You told me your credit recovery section has grown from a zero-period recovery section to now offering five periods a day. It sounds like your Courseware implementation has grown quite a bit.

The entire school day has at least one period offering of Courseware credit recovery. We offer over 26 different courses students can recover credits in. Right now, we're running at about 49 separate sections between four different teachers.

It's completely taken over as the primary way we run credit recovery on our campus to augment all the direct instruction we're doing. That's been a huge boon for us; we get tons of kids that can recover credits at a faster rate. Our graduation numbers are shooting up. This year at Ortega, since we switched over to the full-day use of Edmentum as credit recovery, we'll have our largest graduating class in the history of the school. That's in part due to the way we constructed these recovery courses using Courseware.

Wow, that is really exciting!

Yeah, it's really awesome what we've been able to do for our kids. A continuation school is tough because it carries with it a lot of negative connotations of what continuation school is and who those kids are. For us to be able to offer them different pathways and give them curriculum that's more accessible, more consumable, and fits their needs is probably one of the best things we could do. It's something these kids have never experienced before because they've been shuffled into a system that makes the kid fit the system. In this case, we're able to make the system fit the kids.

You’ve told me that building a concrete relationship with your students is very important to you and that you try to make yourself as available to them as possible—even staying every day after school until 6 PM just in case a student wants to chat. What is your approach to showing students you’re there for them?

It's not uncommon when kids come in here where the first thing I'll ask them is, "Did you eat today?" Because, if they're hungry or they're tired or they're thirsty, school is the last thing they want to think about. We keep all kinds of snacks in my office just for that purpose. We start from there, and then, while they're eating, we'll have some conversation and then get into: "OK, well, let's talk about why we have an F in science. I see you failed this test. Do you need help with this test? Let's schedule a time. You and I sit down—let's do the test.”

We'll do it together. We'll work on it together. Once we start establishing that relationship and they have a little bit of success, grades start going up; it's like a snowball effect.

So, that's my approach with my kids: I build a relationship first before we start talking some of the more pressing academic issues. Then, I just make it accessible. I try to find ways to get the content they need: maybe I need to reteach concepts, maybe I need to sit with them and draw pictures; we'll watch videos together, I'll explain things, I'll walk through tests with them. I'll try different modalities of instruction. If they're struggling with reading comprehension, we'll listen to the book on tape and then break it down as we go. I just try to find the best way possible for every kid. Sometimes, it's just shutting my mouth and listening to them for 10 minutes, you know?

Why is it so important to build a positive environment for your students?

When they start settling into a routine of positivity, it starts breeding more positivity and starts breeding confidence. The greatest thing is I have kids making honor roll for the first time in their academic life when they come here. They're getting a school award. We have parents coming in that have never been to a school awards assembly in tears because here's their kid and they're earning a 3.5 or 4.0 for the first time in their life.

At the end of the year, what are you hoping that your students are taking away, outside of the diploma? What do you hope they leave your classroom with that they take with them for the rest of their lives?

Perseverance is probably the number-one thing. So many people in their lives have allowed them to quit. They allowed them to stop when the work gets too hard or when the content gets too much for them and they shut down. There was no one there to be like, "Hey, you know what? Let's find a different way. Just because you don't know it now doesn't mean we can't."

It's really teaching them how to problem-solve and how to overcome those challenges. Because I tell them in the real world, there's no Mr. Clark to chase you down and pull you into his office and give you that pep talk or break things down for you.

What does it mean to you to be Edmentum Educator of the Year? How does that feel, and what does it mean to you to win this award?

I really must give a shout out to my principal, Dr. Greg Cleave, because of his vision and his direction with this program. I mean, he's the one that kind of spearheaded this thing, and I had his support every step of the way. But, to be Edmentum’s Educator of the Year, to me, it's a validation of everything we're doing here. It's a validation of our culture, of the way we treat kids, of the way we run our program, of the success we have here. It’s something that our whole school can take pride in.

Interested in learning more about Edmentum’s Educator of the Year Award and this year’s Inspiring Educator honorees? Take a look at this blog post announcing all of this year’s winners, and check back for more winner profiles coming soon!

Here more from this educator and our other Educator of the Year Award Winners in our upcoming webinar on Thursday, July 25 at 10 AM CST. Register here!