So Few Students; So Much Time

Last week I sat down to complete several “Secondary School Reports” for my college-bound seniors. The SSR is a requirement for any student using the Common Application to apply to colleges. Each year I fill in boxes that ask for students’ academic histories, grade point averages, current schedules, whether or not we rank students (we don’t), etc. It’s a fairly straightforward procedure until it comes time for the “ratings” section. This part of the form has four categories:

            •Academic Achievement

            •Extracurricular Accomplishments

            •Personal Qualities and Character


Each category has seven possible ratings that range from “below average” to “one of the top few I’ve ever encountered”.

The academic achievement and extracurricular accomplishments categories are no-brainers. I look at their grades and review their activities and voila, I come up with a rating. It’s all subjective and relative, of course, but a 4.0 is a 4.0, and three years of volunteering at the humane society is pretty darn remarkable.

It’s the next category that always throws me for a loop. You see, as an educator in a small school I think all of my kids are one of a kind. So many of them are among “the top few I have ever met.” Not a single one of them is “typical”. I know this, because I know them. And I know them because of what my school chooses to set time aside for, every year, right after winter break: student-led roundtable conferences.

Each January every single student, all 190 of them, has a 30-minute long, midyear conference to which they invite parents, guardians, peers, teachers, and other staff members. They share work from their portfolios, talk about their accomplishments and struggles, reflect on their growth in the Habits of Heart and Mind, and set goals for the short and long term. The advisor facilitates each conference, but the student is truly in the driver’s seat. It’s not strictly a time to show off, although that happens sometimes. The roundtable conference is about honest reflection and hard conversations too.

The final section of the conference (my favorite part) allows each invited guest to give kudos to the presenting student. One of my rudest awakenings happened during our first year when a mother told her son, for the first time ever, that she was proud of him. Not since then have I made it through a day of roundtable conferences without either almost or actually crying.

Today, at her conference, one of my advisees talked about how hard math has been for her since elementary school. She said that math was like “enemy that is always taunting me”. This year, however, thanks to an incredibly supportive and skilled group of teachers, she is getting it. Most kids are seated during their roundtables; she was standing up. She pulled test, after homework assignment, after quiz out of her portfolio, handed them out for her mother and grandmother to look at, and talked about how she is finally understanding the connection between asking for help, taking her time, doing homework, and academic success. “No duh” you may be thinking, but for her it was an epiphany, and she could not have been more excited. As she concluded her presentation, she said “I know now that it’s ok to be the last one finished with my test, it’s ok to ask for help, and it’s ok to need extra time.”

Her mom chimed in and shared that she was impressed; that when she was her daughter’s age she was too busy doing drugs to think about her future, and it has taken her until the age of 40 to grow up. Neither she nor her husband ever went to college.

During the goal-setting section of the conference, this student shared that she wanted to be a teacher. Given all I know about her, she is one of the top few students I have ever encountered. Her future students will be so lucky.

And so am I, to know her.


Eve Rifkin

Eve Rifkin

Tucson, Arizona

I have been an educator for over 20 years. As a founding co-director of City High School, I have held a variety of leadership and teaching roles, including academic director, humanities teacher, and principal. I am currently the Director of College Access and support students as they envision their lives after high school.

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