Angela Jerabek’s BARR 2019 Speech

For those of you I haven’t had a chance to meet yet, my name is Angela Jerabek. I am a K-12 educator. After spending five years as a school counselor, I founded BARR here in St. Louis Park. As someone with deep roots in this community, I am so excited to be here to celebrate twenty years of BARR’s success with you.

For those who are BARR veterans, you know that our approach to school depends on building positive relationships, using data, and implementing strategies like creating block meetings, making space for I-Time, and understanding young people as unique individuals. But what makes BARR successful is not any one single component of the model. It’s all of you.

Your commitment to serving students. Your spirit of collaboration. The community you have built and the joy you bring to this work. Those qualities are what make you the “secret sauce” to BARR’s success and are why I am so excited to celebrate with you today.

Our celebration is bigger than ever with more than 500 educators coming together from across the country! Those who were here in the very beginning remember that our get togethers have not always been this big.

In 2011, we had our very first BARR conference in rural Bucksport, Maine. Twenty-two staff total came from St. Louis Park High School, Hemet High School in California, and Bucksport High School. After meeting during the day in the school library, we wanted to spend some time together in the evening only to discover that all of the establishments in rural Bucksport close at 9 pm. That’s how we found ourselves at Tozier’s, the local biker bar and only place open after 9. It wasn’t long before we were laughing and connecting with the locals which is how this amazing BARR community started.

The community we are building at BARR is personal to me because it shaped my own experience as an educator. Twenty years ago, as I was completing my 5th year as a school counselor at St. Louis Park High School, half of my students were failing classes, and I felt I was failing them. I tried everything—counseling, meetings, calling parents—but I couldn’t get the failure list to budge. My experience was reflective of what so many other educators go through when they feel personally responsible for what is actually a system that wasn’t working.

I concluded that it was me, and my inability to have students succeed, and it was time for me to move on. I met with Bob Laney, the principal who later went on to become a Superintendent to explain that I was planning to resign. But Bob explained to me the broader context of what was happening with my students and encouraged me to develop something new. He told me that if the system wasn’t working, I should be the one to fix it. I woke up that day ready to walk away, but with inspiration and support from my colleagues, I began the twenty year journey that brought us here today.

Another big life event that shaped BARR was raising my children Jonah and Haley, who were just a few months and a few years old, when I started BARR. Some of my earliest memories of them include writing plans to transform schools at the kitchen table while Jonah slept in a baby Bjorn strapped to me and Haley played beside me.

With BARR, I tried to build a school model that approached students the same way I approach my own kids. That means not only giving them unconditional love and support, but also challenging them to live up to their full potential, and creating a community of supportive adults who help shape their lives. As their parent, every day, I benefited from the experience and perspectives of family, friends, coaches, teachers and other supportive adults who surrounded them. With BARR, just like parenting, it truly takes a village working together.

Of course, not all parenting goes exactly as planned, which brings us to the next installment of hearing about my children which BARR veterans know and expect, just like the yearly holiday letter.

Two years ago, my daughter Haley graduated from Xavier in Cincinnati where she ran track all four years. To celebrate, she decided to run her first marathon with the other Xavier track captain. A few weeks before the race, her friend was injured and had to drop out. Jonah, then a senior in high school, decided to run with Haley–despite having not trained–so that she didn’t have to run alone. My husband and I tried to counsel him against it fervently, but he went ahead anyway. True to form, he also decided to stay with friends the night before the race and forego a decent pre-race meal for a cereal variety pack.

Apparently, an 18 year old high school athlete can run 18 miles pretty easily, but mile 19 on gets pretty rough. No longer were the Sugar Smacks and Fruit Loops sitting well. At one point, Jonah thought he had torn his ACL. Haley assured him they were running straight forward and an ACL injury was very unlikely and after a quick trip to the medical tent confirmed there was no injuries, they forged ahead. He told Haley to leave him multiple times, and she refused. A low point was when he was in a Port-o-Potty begging Haley to leave him, she remained positive and cheered “You are doing great!” which apparently is not ideal when you are 18 year old boy to have your sister cheering you while in a Port-O-Potty! About a mile from the finish line, Jonah saw a friend running up front and decided to pick up the pace as he knew he could run as well as his friend, even though it didn’t feel like it now. Running with Haley and seeing his friend inspired Jonah to have confidence that he too could do this and the three of them finished together. He had a team that would stick with him no matter what.

Look around you. You are part of an amazing community that is also having incredible success in this work. You have a team that will stick with you no matter what. There are times when they will inspire you, and there are times when you will inspire them. Sometimes, all we can do is hang on in this journey together. And in the moments when you feel like Jonah, remember that your success with BARR means that you inspire educators from all parts of the country. You represent the hope and inspiration of what’s possible when we work hard to change schools to support all of our students.

The truth is that anyone can teach a new curriculum or try a new technology. But BARR demands more. It demands hard, emotional work from everyone in the school building. But it’s also why we all chose this profession. We are called to this work to make a real difference in young people’s lives and we are!

For the last twenty years, I have seen the national education conversation begin to recognize the importance of social and emotional learning. I have seen a new focus on recognizing children’s entire needs—not just academics. That’s exciting, but I also understand the risk of seeing SEL as the next trendy silver bullet versus a transformational way of “doing school” which is what we need.

BARR’s success is about real durable change and is not dependent on any one component of the model. It’s doing the hard work every day to build positive, intentional relationships. It’s taking the time to understand every student as a person and as a learner, and then to use that understanding in our teaching. And it’s key that just as we build relationships within our schools, we are building relationships and supporting one another.

Our focus on those unsexy fundamentals might explain why BARR hasn’t always had the national spotlight like other approaches or trends in education. But what we have built, together, is not a trend. It is a proven model that supports students in over 100 schools across 15 states and Washington, DC.

At BARR, we celebrate the evidence or our success because we know those numbers mean degrees earned, lives changed, and hope for students. That hope is the ultimate reward of our work. What began with one school in Bucksport, Maine has grown to 28 schools across the state of Maine. Next year, there will be 21 schools in California after BARR started with the first school, Hemet High, in 2011. BARR is working everywhere from Baltimore to rural Kentucky because it uses the talent within the school.

In each and every BARR school, we have seen success within the first year with an average decline in failure rates of 35 percent. BARR schools don’t just fail less. They thrive more. We recently learned that BARR helped 43 percent more Hemet High School graduates enroll in four-year colleges!

But it’s not just the student success numbers that matter. BARR teachers say they feel more effective and more collaborative. In turn, students report stronger engagement, higher expectations, and more supportive relationships with adults. That’s what you all have made possible over the last twenty years.

As proud as I am, I also know that our work is not yet done. Far from it. While BARR schools have made extraordinary progress, the reality is that our students still do not have all of the opportunities they deserve. Those who are farthest from opportunity, who grow up in certain neighborhoods, or who look a certain way, or who come from certain backgrounds… they are the students who need BARR the most. And there’s still more that each of us can do to make sure that they—and all of our students—are earning an education and a better life.

That’s why—on BARR’s 20th anniversary—I want to celebrate BARR’s success by challenging each of us to double down on what makes BARR work. Now is the time to recommit ourselves to building relationships, especially with the students and adults who challenge us most. Think of the student who is chronically absent or late, but you know could succeed if they just had a little bit more support. Imagine a teacher who has been unwilling to give up old habits or try new things. Remember a parent whose criticisms are usually more critical than constructive. These challenges are real. The frustrations they bring add to the pressure you face every day. It’s the frustration caused by feeling like you are working alone, instead of working as part of a community.

By reinvesting in our relationships with those students and adults that challenge us most, we can transform their journey and our own. We can be the partner in the marathon of educating ALL our students and ensure every student thrives!

Our job as BARR educators is to build a community of support for our students, and ourselves, so that we never give up. My call to action to you is to return to your communities with the mindset of building that village. Make it impossible for you to give up on them or for them to give up on you.

Because if I have learned anything through the last 20 years at BARR, it is that sometimes when you have reached the moment that you are ready to give up, your biggest breakthroughs are right around the corner.

Thank you again for everything you do, and I look forward to the next 20 years of building BARR with you.

– Angela Jerabek, Executive Director, BARR Center