Adeyemi Stembridge had no problem fitting in with the first-graders who gathered to start their afternoon lesson in a classroom at Highline Elementary School on March 10.
Stembridge is a nationally renowned expert in the field of equity, engagement and academic achievement in public education. He holds a doctorate degree in educational leadership, a master's in literature and a bachelor's in English. The former director of the Center for Strategic Solutions at New York University, Stembridge is an accomplished expert when it comes to the most complex and cutting-edge approaches to helping students of all backgrounds learn.
For the moment, however, Stembridge did not play the stereotypical part of an academic, a researcher or even a teacher. Sporting a bowtie, dress shoes and a three-piece suit, Stembridge became one of the students. He sat among the first-graders on the carpet as their multi-media lesson about the Statue of Liberty kicked off. He joined them in making hand gestures and sound effects; he shared their wonder as the GPS map beaming on the screen made an animated, airborne journey from Aurora, Colorado to New York, New York.
"We are really flying right now," Stembridge exclaimed as the screen zoomed from the Colorado plains to New York Harbor. All around him, students offered similar expressions of wonder and amazement.
"I find that the most compelling stories that we can tell about people are the stories that you're not privy to until you immerse yourself in their lives. For me, what's most fun about the work that I do is immersing myself in the stories of schools. Every school has its own unique story. There are no two schools in Cherry Creek that are exactly the same."
-- Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge
Dr. Stembridge's hands-on, integrated approach at Highline was typical of a deeper philosophy when it comes to education. Stembridge traveled from New York to the Cherry Creek School District at the outset of the 2015-16 school year with a specific purpose in mind: To help guide school-based equity work across the district and design strategies to ensure that all children have the opportunity to be successful. Stembridge, who has divided his time between the Cherry Creek district and Aurora Public Schools in an unprecedented partnership, has drawn on all the most current and compelling academic research in working with teachers, administrators and district officials.
But as his visit to Highline and Mission Viejo Elementary earlier in the week showed, Stembridge is about much more than mere theory. In working to help close opportunity gaps for children of color, he takes a school-by-school, student-by-student approach. That's meant working closely with individuals in classrooms across the district.
"I find that the most compelling stories that we can tell about people are the stories that you're not privy to until you immerse yourself in their lives," Stembridge said. "For me, what's most fun about the work that I do is immersing myself in the stories of schools. Every school has its own unique story. There are no two schools in Cherry Creek that are exactly the same.
"We have to be very careful about one-size-fits-all models, especially when it pertains to something as human and as personal as this notion of equity," Stembridge said.
Addressing such a complex problem requires an individualized approach to solutions, Stembridge maintains, and his work at all levels reflects that attention to detail. In work with teachers across the district, Dr. Stembridge has incorporated research related to psychology, neuroscience and pedagogy fundamentals. In his time in classrooms, he's made a point to connect with individual students of all ages and backgrounds, intent on garnering feedback that's directly tied to the way they learn.
Specifically, Stembridge has sought input about students' specific stories – their strengths, their passions, their lives outside of the classroom. He's encouraged teachers, principals and administrators to take the same tack.
"Engagement and equity means that when kids come in to a building, they know that they are valued," Stembridge said. "They know it not just because of what adults say to them explicitly. They know it because the learning experience feels like it was created with their needs, their interests and their experiences in mind."
Those messages have resonated for teachers like Karen Cook, who hosted Stembridge in her fifth-grade classroom at Mission Viejo Elementary on March 8.
"When you're talking about engagement, you're not singling a group of students out. You're talking about engagement for everyone," said Cook, who's taught at Mission Viejo for 11 years. "As I'm doing my lessons, I look specifically at what I know about my students as a whole, what I know about their cultural identity."
Cook is quick to point out that her fifth-grade students love to talk and debate; they love to take on the role of teacher in offering insights about their own lives and backgrounds. Incorporating that knowledge in a lesson plan is a critical part of making learning accessible and meaningful for every single student.
"It's looking at all of the students based upon what they uniquely bring to the classroom," Cook said. "It's a different viewpoint. It has nothing to do with me – it's all about them and knowing them."
It's an approach that gets to the heart of Stembridge's work in equity and engagement. Every classroom is its own community. Every student brings their own cultural cues and backgrounds to the learning process. Effective and equitable teaching takes these factors into account to make information accessible.
"Equity is about making teaching absolutely relevant," Stembridge said. "Absolute relevance for me means that what I'm learning is fun, what I'm learning is interesting, what I'm learning is specifically tailored to me."