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Who’s Your School Dad? Highline Wants Kids To Feel Bonded

Teacher Reid Sundbad teaches P.E. at Chinook Middle School. He also meets with a group of Latino boys three times a week for a class called Advisory.
KUOW Photo/Liz Jones
Teacher Reid Sundbad teaches P.E. at Chinook Middle School. He also meets with a group of Latino boys three times a week for a class called Advisory.

It’s the last day in Reid Sundblad’s P.E. class near Sea-Tac Airport, and a few kids are really bummed.

“Oh, don’t cry,” Sundblad says. “It’s been a pleasure and I love you all.”

Sundblad has cropped hair, earrings and Adidas pants – sort of a Macklemore look. He’s 29 and not too long ago, he was a student here at Chinook Middle School in the Highline School District.

“Building wise it hasn’t changed,” Sundblad says. “There are actually some teachers here who’ve been teaching since I was here.”

But the student body has changed in the past 15 years. During Sundblad’s time, it was more than half white kids. Now, they’re mostly Latino, black and Asian. And the number of low-income students has shot up past 80 percent.

Sundblad sees them struggle with things that never even crossed his mind in middle school.

“We’ve had fights. I’ve had students in past involved with drugs, alcohol, abuse at home.”

And he knows what can happen when students feel like nobody at school cares about them. He’s seen A-students fall off the grid.

“They just stop showing up and unfortunately that’s my last memory of them, is them just not showing up anymore,” he says. “It’s sad.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Students in Reid Sundblad's Advisory class at Chinook Middle School near Sea-Tac have come to see themselves as family. The class, geared toward discussing college and feeling connected to school, meets three times a week.", "fid": "125638", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201604/P1060889.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]Now, in this school district south of Seattle, they ask middle schoolers this question: Is there at least one adult in your school who cares about you and knows you well?

About one in four students say no. Research shows this connection can help all kids – not just the trouble makers and mean girls. But how do teachers build that bond?

Increasingly, Sundblad’s focus as a teacher, along with all the staff here, is to know what each kid is going through. To know these kids better. And for the kids to know and trust them.

One big way they do that with a class called Advisory. It’s an old idea, but Chinook is experimenting with the format.

Before Sundblad’s Advisory group starts, some kick around a soccer ball. Others eat lunch. When Sundblad was a kid, that class was 20 minutes of silent reading.

Now it’s 50 minutes, three times a week, and the whole point is to talk.

“Welcome gentleman,” Sundblad says to his kids.

Fourteen boys circle up on the couches and stools. They pass a keychain to take turns talking, sharing some recent regrets.

“My biggest regrets are all bad things I said to the teachers,” says a student.

“Failing some of my classes,” says another student.

“My biggest regret is also slacking off,” says one more.

They talk about their goals, and they give compliments.

“Shout out to Abraham because during 6th period he’s been helping students who are getting off track,” one student says.

Who knew 8th grade boys could be so nice to each other? And these are supposed to be the tough kids. Sundblad got this group because they’ve had troubles with academics or behavior.

But in Sundblad’s office, they’ve formed a cocoon of friendship.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Reid Sundblad, a physical education teacher, talks with a student in his office at Chinook Middle School. Highline School District aims to connect students with teachers and mentors. ", "fid": "125642", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201604/P1060879_1.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Liz Jones"}]]Sundblad closes the Advisory period with a quote: “Remember, you stand where no one else stands. It might be in the work place, on the athletic field or across the dinner table. You may never know the impact of someone who is looking up to you...”

Kyla Lackie, an administrator in the Highline School District, thinks a lot about how the advisor role should work. Every school in the district has its own Advisory program, but Lackie’s job is to develop common strategies.

She says they aim for small groups of 15 to 20 students. And students often stay with the same advisors for two years, so bonds can really form.

It’s also the designated time to talk about college.

“That’s where we really try to think about this as an equity issue,” Lackie says. “We need to make sure all students get this core content around their future planning. We can’t assume they’re getting that somewhere else.”

Back at Chinook Middle School, a lot of eyes are on the advisory program, which was revamped this year. Classes are longer than anywhere else. And they’re trying out special groupings, like new refugees – or the Latino boys in Sundblad’s group.

For his part, Sundblad sees good results.

Like with Abraham Mora, who was getting in fights.

“I used to be bad places, but because of him I switched,” Mora says. “My grades got higher. I’ve been hanging out with right people. He really switched me up.”

Another student, Zeke Pestana Cruz, calls Sundblad his “school dad.” But his teacher isn’t the only one who keeps him on track. It’s the whole group.

“I know that I can’t let a group a guys, like my brothers, I can’t let them down,” Pestana says.

The Highline District is taking a deeper measure of these school connections, thanks to a major federal grant. Early results show there’s a ways to go. 

Year started with KUOW: 2006