EvaClaire Wright empathizes with both the student and the parent and focuses on treating students 'like human beings': with respect and responsibility
What are students learning at the Academy of Thought and Industry, our network of teenage learning communities? How are students growing? What matters most there? Bobby George, Director of Content at Higher Ground Education, recently sat down with EvaClaire Wright, the Head of School at ATI’s campus in Austin, Texas, to answer some of these questions while discussing her role and her passion for the work. Meet EvaClaire Wright.
Bobby: Tell us about yourself.
EvaClaire: I’m EvaClaire Wright, I’m the Head of School in Austin, Texas, and I have a unique journey to this position. When I was in middle school, I went through an experience that’s very similar to what many of our youth in this country face, which is, as I gained more autonomy and independence, rather than kind of reveling in that, my anxiety and depression levels started to increase. And as a result of that, I grew depressed, wasn’t able to function, and went from being a straight-A student to a failing student.
Like many of our parents experienced, I suddenly wasn’t the child my parents knew. I was at a top private school, but we were suddenly willing to look at options that were more alternative. At the time, I thought that was going to mean sacrifice. Instead, I found a place that was willing to see me for who I am, adults who actually wanted to get to know me. In response, I began to thrive. I was given leadership positions and ended up in my top-choice college.
What that showed me was that what our country’s teens need are people who are willing to love them, care for them, give them responsibility, and true respect will work. And in response, they will be able to thrive and take on the autonomy we want them to. So rather than being a sacrifice, I gained the skills I needed and had the outcome I wanted. This role is me giving back and staying in that space I love and believe in.
Bobby: There’s such a sense of community at ATI, where everyone genuinely cares about each other. How do you develop these relationships with students?
EvaClaire: My work is about community building. What I am passionate about is personal growing and community work. And we built a community between adults and students by being present and interested, and it actually is that easy. But the reason we have such a strong student community is because our students want it. They see what other high school spaces look like and they see what it does to people, and they wanted something different. So as the buy-in of every single student, it is that every single student is choosing to be at ATI, not being forced to. That creates such an incredible space.
Bobby: What makes ATI special to you?
EvaClaire: What makes ATI special is that we treat teens like human beings. We treat them with respect and responsibility that allows them to rise up and be their best selves. ATI is special because of the relationships and because of how the adults treat the teens and how the teens treat each other. And it is desiring to be our best selves and being willing to do the work to get there.
Bobby: How do academics play a role?
EvaClaire: If you truly care about someone, you hold them to high standards, because that communicates that you respect them and you believe in them. Thus, we have very high standards for our students. But you set high standards based on where a student is, so that they’re realistic while also encouraging them to dream big.
My rule and my commitment is that we do not sacrifice. That means our students have a prom, they have dances, they have these big high school experiences. It also means that if they want to go to MIT, they will have the chance to go to MIT. Our program is uniquely developed to challenge students and to support them in developing as much as they’re capable of, because we set goals individually and there’s limitless room for growth. For instance, in math, a student could potentially move through multiple years of math if they are prepared for that level of intellectual rigor. For most students, there’s going to be one area in which they are superb in and they’re ready to run. Our role is actually taking schools out of the way. And there’s going to be another area in which they’re challenged. Humans are perfectly balanced, so this make sense.
Bobby: How do you know that a student is flourishing at ATI?
EvaClaire: Great question. A student is flourishing at ATI if they are in a space in which they are challenged, but not overwhelmed. They’re doing good work, they are genuinely engaged, and they’re both challenged but also working at things they’re passionate about. They have strong relationships, and I think the metric for this, actually, is how they talk about themselves in their lives.
Bobby: How do you see them talking about themselves in their lives?
EvaClaire: The reason I love teenagers is because teenagers are at this very unique space in their development. They are old enough to see the world in its totality, and yet they’re seeing it for the first time. It’s a very unique perspective. They’re seeing it all and they’re trying to figure out how it all fits together and what their place is within it. And I think that, as adults and as organizations, we can benefit a lot from seeing: What do they reflect back when they see our world from this new and fresh perspective? Now, for many teens, that can feel overwhelming, and that’s why the real work component is so important.
I believe that what teenagers in this country need is genuine coaching and mentorship, and real work. Students are ready to begin taking on the responsibilities of adulthood, and the only way we can support them in being strong adults is by giving them the work of adults and structuring it so that they’re able to take it on slowly, little by little.
Bobby: If ATI would’ve existed for you, what do you think your experience would’ve been like, knowing what you know now on the other side?
EvaClaire: My high school experience was, in essence, version one of ATI, which is now version three. I went to a school that is the primary basis for the program. I had a very similar experience to our students, which is why I am in a unique position to be able to communicate between teens and parents. Being the parent of a teen is a big thing as students begin to individuate. It can be hard for them to communicate with their families, and it’s developmentally appropriate for them to push on the edges of their independence. This is why a mentor is so important, someone who can support them in making strong decisions, because they are going to be making independent, huge decisions, while also supporting their family and making sure their family is aware of what’s going on in the teen’s life.
Bobby: If you had to describe ATI in one word, what would it be?
EvaClaire: ATI is adults willing to be on the front lines of an epidemic that is facing our teens in this country. Very few people, very few adults, are courageous enough to try and fix a systematic and huge problem, which is that our teenagers are suffering. We are an attempt at a solution, and we are the belief that teenagers not only are suffering for themselves, but also that they are an untapped resource, and our world is suffering because we are not tapping into it. My commitment is building the best high school in the world, and I believe we are on the pathway to that.
Bobby: What gives you the most amount of joy in doing what you’re doing?
EvaClaire: Every single one of our guides and every single one of our leaders, including myself, is a coach. And that is the most important role to me. I have had students who I’ve seen since sixth grade, who I am with as they are sophomores and juniors, and I get to be a part of a young person’s life and see them grow and see them develop. And it’s the biggest honor of my life.
Bobby: How do you respond to your 12-, 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old students with an already intense focus on college?
EvaClaire: Our young people aren’t given meaningful work unless they’re on a hamster wheel. They have a lot of extra energy, and they’re putting that into obsessing about the future, or rebellious, unhealthy behavior. And so we need to give them work that is meaningful now, and get them started on their lives. Yes, college is an important step, but you should be living your life now, and we’re all going to benefit from that, because teens are coming from such a unique perspective. Teens are so much easier than adults.
Technology is advancing at extraordinary levels. We are seeing a rate of technological advancement that is speeding up every day. Thus, very soon, there’s going to be a level of automation that makes many of the things humans do moot. So, what are humans good for? We’re good at being human. And thus, these soft skills that we like to push to the side become critically important. Our ability to critically think, our ability to reason, and our ability to be empathetic and think about moral issues become the reason we are here on this earth.
Bobby: What values do you hope are imparted to the students?
EvaClaire: That every young person has limitless capacity to personally grow, that life can be limitlessly fulfilling, and that there’s more room for them to evolve than they could ever imagine. And that they’re uniquely privileged, and it’s their responsibility to use that privilege.
Bobby: How are those soft skills nurtured at ATI?
EvaClaire: We have a course called Life Design, which I like to explain as all the things you’re supposed to know about being a human that you were never taught. That’s everything from how to deal with stress — for one young person, that’s going to be sitting in a perfectly calm room with their eyes closed silent. For another kid, they’re going to need to run around the block as fast as they can. So you’re building a toolbox, not telling them how to deal with stress. In this course, they’re learning how to deal with stress, but also what is insurance and how to balance a checkbook. It’s a space that we’re learning a lot of these soft skills, but it’s also how we are connecting with the young people. The adults in our community have to be constantly modeling it, and then it becomes the responsibility of older students to be modeling it as well. And I think it is taught through that human transmission.
Bobby: Can you talk about Socratic?
EvaClaire: Socratic practice is sitting in a circle and discussing big ideas. This is exceptionally important for teenagers specifically, not only for their critical reading skills, but also because part of being a teenager is being in an existential space. And so when we are reading these high level texts, these great works of literature and history and philosophy, we’re giving them the opportunity both to develop critical skills, critical intellectual skills, to communicate clearly and eloquently, to have a complex discussion, potentially and hopefully with someone you categorically disagree with, but with respect. And also helping them to figure out what their ideas are about the world. They find very quickly there’s a reason we are still reading these people.
The process is, at the beginning, I have no idea what I’m reading. Then someone starts to pick it apart a little bit. And, suddenly, there’s a little bit of meaning, and it becomes engaging and fun. It’s both critical analysis and pulling on personal experience and development of ideas. From this space, we see students becoming incredibly eloquent and getting really high scores on the critical reading section of the SAT. In every single one of our courses, we are developing both personal development as well as intellectual development.
Bobby: What do you read in Socratic?
EvaClaire: We read a wide variety of texts. In our core program, we are committed to giving students a well-rounded education, even though it’s only one component of their education. So they’re going to be exposed to philosophy, psychology, history, but also economics and science within Socratic. There are no bounds to what we can read. Primarily, though, we do focus on the classics, because there is a reason that these writers and these works have survived the test of time. In addition, we also welcome students bringing in texts that are relevant to the issues that are facing them and are facing their communities, so we can have a formalized space where they can think about these ideas in a higher intellectual capacity.
Bobby: Do students disagree with one another in Socratic?
EvaClaire: Students absolutely disagree with each other in Socratic. In fact, we encourage it. Because one of the things we are teaching them in Socratic is strong communication skills. You can categorically disagree with what I am saying, and I can still respectfully take an interest in that without giving up my opinion. I can be curious and open and want to know more about your perspective without giving up what I hold to believe and what I hold to be true.
In today’s society, in which communication is very complex and there are a lot of strong opinions about how to communicate, it’s vitally important that we can disagree and we can learn how to have complex discourse with respect.
Bobby: How do you prevent that from being competitive?
EvaClaire: There is no winning in Socratic, so there is no way to be competitive. Our students are taking apart great ideas in which there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Thus, they can’t get an A. They actually have to figure out what they believe.
Bobby: Can you define the coaching?
EvaClaire: Every student at ATI has an individual coach. This coach meets with them one-on-one for at least 30 minutes every week. But in addition, we’re just around each other a lot, and the communication is constant. They’re supporting students with their goals and with their personal projects. They’re also aware of the values and dreams of the family and the student, and how their actions are leading to success in the future.
The coach is committed not only to professional and intellectual success, but also personal success. If you are crying in math class because your boyfriend broke up with you that morning, you’re not going to pay attention in math. So they’re the person that’s going to pull you out, support you in calming you down and seeing more clearly, and then return you to class. They’re an adult in your life who is 100 percent in support of you and on your team. They’re there to coach young people toward autonomy. The goal is not that we are telling them what to do, but supporting them in what their beliefs are and how to make strong decisions for their future and for their lives.
Bobby: And what other courses are available at ATI?
EvaClaire: Our core courses are Life Design, Socratic, writing and math and problem solving. Our core program is intended to be a holistic and well-rounded educational program. In addition, we also have afternoon courses you would expect to find at a high school, like history, physics, and chemistry — although they are done in a more engaging, student-focused, and project-based way.
We also support students in preparing for the AP and SAT. We do all test preparation outside of the classroom because, in class, our goal is in engagement, in personal relationship and different than students cramming dates. So when the game changes and it’s time to prepare for a test, we take that outside of the classroom so students are clear on their goals.
Bobby: Is ATI for everyone? Would it be a good fit for every student?
EvaClaire: With the exception of students who need to be in therapeutic care, every student who wants to be at ATI, who chooses to be at ATI, yes, it is the right space for them. The most important thing to me at admissions is that a young person looks at me and says, “I think I can succeed here.” Not, “I know I can succeed here,” because they don’t know. But we want it to be a choice because so often, education is something that is forced on our young people, and we want them to choose to be in our community and choose what they’re doing with their young life, and to see that their life is important and their time is valuable.
Bobby: What problem is ATI solving for?
EvaClaire: The education system is broken. But beyond that, our philosophy on teens is broken. We have self-fulfilling prophecies that are ruining our youth and are destroying generations. In order for our society, our country, and our young people to be great, we have to educate them in a way that will support them in being their best selves.
Bobby: What is thought and industry? What are those two components that are in the school’s name?
EvaClaire: So we have a rather wonderfully grand name, the Academy of Thought and Industry, because we’re committed to supporting students in intellectual, personal, and professional growth, and it is vital to us that we support people in having real opportunities for meaningful work that enables them to actually feel fulfilled at this age.
Bobby: Any questions you want to ask yourself?
EvaClaire: (laughs) I can just answer the question, you’ll just never know what it is.
Bobby: (laughs) Perfect.
EvaClaire: One of the most important parts of our program is how we engage parents and families. We are aware that we are educating a young person, and their families are vital to that, the success of that. We are going to be more successful, the more support and communication we have with the family. If your young person comes home and says something concerning, I want you to text me in the moment. We are always available to families. And we aim to not only support families in ensuring they know that their young person is getting a good education, but also to support them as they grow and develop. And they, themselves, learn what it means to be the parent of a teen.
Our community is composed of guides, students, and parents. And we are committed not just to building an educational community, but a genuine community among and within those three groups.
Bobby: Who are these families? Who are these parents?
EvaClaire: The commonality among our parents is that they have fought for the education of their young person. They care deeply, and for many of them, that’s been a long journey. The commonality of our teens is that they are young people who want to have a bigger leadership role in their education. They’re ready to rise up and to lead their lives.
Bobby: What would you say to a parent or a student who was asking you for a recommendation for ATI?
EvaClaire: ATI defines success uniquely for each individual student. That means we are going to individually set goals and create plans for success for each student that is unique and well suited to them. What works for one student doesn’t work for another, and because of our coaching program, we are able to easily implement that level of individualization.
Bobby: How does it make you feel when you see the students succeed?
EvaClaire: I believe that, at ATI, I am educating the future leaders of this world. And when I see their small successes, I see reflected in that the incredible change that they’re going to bring to the world. I believe fully in teens’ ability to create a future that is unimaginable and extraordinarily beautiful, and so when I see those small moments of excellence, I consider their future and feel fortunate to be able to have witnessed them at this age.
Bobby: I can tell you, they’re fortunate to have you.
EvaClaire: Thank you.