RiseUp Community School: A Conversation with Karen Ikegami

Q&A   29 April 2019
By Karen Ikegami, RiseUp Community School


Education should be used to give young people the tools to do what they want in life. That isn’t to say they know what they want right now, but education should be used to open doors and not close them.

Karen Ikegami

Q: What path led you to working at RiseUp Community School?

A: My education career has been largely non-traditional. I began teaching at a school that highlighted social justice through education. While I knew of this focus going in, I wasn’t yet aware of the complexity of the “institution” of education and the work that needs to be done to begin to untangle it. What I’ve learned over the years is that education can help place us in history and can give us a path forward by helping us understand our past, present, and future potential.

This may seem obvious, but a traditional education can be such a narrow view of history that it excludes the majority of people, thus making students feel moving forward means finding their place in the history that is presented to them in school. What if education were to open the books of all people’s histories and all paths forward? School would truly be for all members of the community.

After grad school, I started working at a school that mostly served an immigrant and refugee population. I taught science there for four years. This was a traditional school that was in the process of breaking up into three small schools under the guidance of the Coalition of Essential Schools. During my time there, I was naive and narrow in my understanding of what marginalized communities needed.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I thought my community of learners needed a hand operating within the dominant culture. I was the typical “let me help you understand the SAT, or how take great Cornell notes” kind of educator. One day, while waiting for a parent-teacher conference to start, I struck up a conversation with a parent who I knew drove a taxi. We were talking about what he did in his home country and he said, “I was a doctor.”


Once [traditional standards] are gone, and you get the freedom to dig into what you think really matters, you can see that the very small box you’ve been operating in is just that—very small.

Karen Ikegami

That moment was defining for me. This story is an example of something that happens all the time, a well-intentioned educator overlooking the fact that the people we serve come with a deep wealth of knowledge, experience, and skillset that drives them forward. They didn’t need me to “show them the way,” they needed me to help them access resources—a very big difference in mindset.

I then had the opportunity to work at Eagle Rock—a school that had a project-based learning, residential model. At Eagle Rock, I learned a lot about what education could be when operating outside the confines of state and district regulations. It can be easy to be pulled and driven by the standards set by the state or district. It can be easy to think that these standards matter.

Once those are gone, and you get the freedom to dig into what you think really matters, you can see that the very small box you’ve been operating in is just that—very small. My experience at Eagle Rock widened my perspective. I realized that different people need different things out of their education and education should encompass the needs of ALL students.

Six years into my career at Eagle Rock, I decided I wanted to move into public education. I wanted to serve the students who, for a myriad of reasons, don’t have a choice about where they attended school. I began my transition by participating in a leadership program through CSL Colorado. They help advance leaders who are looking to change the narrative about public schooling.

Through that program, I met the founding Principal of RiseUp Community School, which was in Year Zero—its planning year—at the time. I came on board six months before they opened and was able to participate in the process of designing the school. That experience was really interesting in determining how to balance what the state and district want versus what we have seen works best for young people.

Q: What challenges have popped up as RiseUp Community School has sought that balance?

A: There’s tradition and law and then this in-between based on district expectations. The district is our authorizer, so they have the ability to end our charter through a voting process—even if we are following the law. The biggest barrier we often come up against isn’t so much tradition, as it is what’s easiest for adults.

In Denver, our charter allows us to create our own curriculum and assessments, but we are still held to the same transcript as a traditional school. Yes, we have the freedom to give students an experience we think is meaningful, but we are held within the confines of a goal that we aren’t fully bought into and is sometimes in contradiction to what we see as most critical. The pull between time, district expectations, and RiseUp’s mission sometimes mean that we need to prioritize things we wouldn’t otherwise prioritize.

Q: What motivates the RiseUp community to continue pushing for outcomes that you know the district isn’t looking for?

A: We see a lot of success with our model—especially with a group of students who have been marginalized and left feeling disenfranchised by the school system. To see them reengage is powerful.

The way we receive students is important to note. Denver has two types of charters. There are charters in Denver that other districts across the country might label as magnet schools—“choice” programs that are competitive and use a lottery system for enrollment. Then, there are alternative schools that students “transition” into. We’re in that “alternative” category.

A high school will identify the students who need to be transitioned and then a district transition team meets with the student and helps them find a new school. That change is initiated by the school most of the time, so it’s a different feel for a student who comes into our building. Yes, they did have the choice between which school they would attend out of the list of alternative schools given to them, but they weren’t given the option to stay at the school they were already attending.

A lot of our students have the feeling they’ve been abandoned. We’ll receive students who are in their senior year and told, “Hey, you need to find a new school.” We do our best to take all students that come to us. These are students who really mistrust school and, not surprisingly, their academic performance hasn’t been going well in a system they don’t trust.

Q: Given these learners haven’t had much of a choice in this process, how do you then engage them in the culture you are trying to build?

A: When we first opened our doors, we didn’t have a clear understanding how the transition looked from the student’s perspective. We knew the process of the transition team but not the experience of the student. The program we originally developed was to attract a diverse range of students, but we soon discovered we didn’t have that level of control.

The culture piece is difficult. We are constantly asking ourselves, “How responsive are we to learners who did not choose us?” Initially, we were designed for older students (17-21). As the years have gone by, our two main cohorts of students are either freshmen entering their second semester of high school or seniors who have been asked to leave their original high school.

It can take a student a few months to get their feet under them when they arrive, but I think that’s true for any student who moves schools. That’s why it’s really important for us to limit how much kids are moving schools. Once they come to us, we’re committed to sticking with them even if it’s rough.

Our veteran students have a lot to do with shaping our culture because they can say to incoming students, “This is what we do here, and this is what we don’t do here.” We’ve attempted various ways of establishing the culture we want here based on the experiences our teachers have had working at other schools. Some things work, and some things don’t work. Our advisory has been the best idea to date. It creates an open environment, and students have a lot to do with shaping what their advisory looks like. We do our best to match a student with the best advisor and advisory for them to give them an easy “in” to the school culture.

Q: What matters to you and RiseUp leaders about developing agency in your young learners?

A: When we started RiseUp, we thought our students would be able to develop agency within the context of their communities. We originally started by asking, “What problems and issues do you want to address in the city, country, and world?” Students seemed to give us these robotic answers “homelessness, drugs, trash,” but it was when they talked about the daily struggles they were facing that they got animated and the discussions became rich. It’s not that our students can’t take on those big picture problems, but we realized a lot of our students don’t even have agency in their own daily lives.

We want students to know they can effect change in their daily lives. We like to go through questions like:

  • “Who are you?” versus “Who have people told you to be?”
  • “What can you see in the world that is different than what you currently have?”
  • “What are ways other people like you have been able to effect change?”

These questions are embedded in courses we offer. For example, we have a masculinity class in which students examine what people have been taught masculinity is. We bring in external mentors and leaders who have gone through this exploration themselves. They showcase the societal issues that occur based on how masculinity is sometimes seen in the mainstream, and they provide guidance on how our students can counteract some of the traits that cause harm.

We also help our students express their thoughts through the arts. Of course, that’s what art is used for, but we specifically focus on arts that express who the student is and what their community is. It’s an opportunity for students to explore themselves and others in their immediate community.

Overall, we want students to know they have the power to effect change on a more micro level (within themselves) and on a more macro level (within their communities).

Q: What do you wish people would ask you more about your work?

A: What should students receive out of their education? I think it’s a really simple question, but there’s this weird thing that happens in education where schools are really responsive to the pressures of what adults think education should be. But, no one seems to question if that leads to what is best for students.

You end up in these really large bureaucracies where every student needs to have four years of math, for example. I have no idea where that came from or the logic that was used to say trigonometry is a universal thing we all should know.

That starting question allows you to go down that rabbit hole of: “I don’t know where that assumption about how education should be came from.” Illogic created that standard and has led to this robust system that supports it (e.g. schools supplying extra math tutors). I love math, and I like trigonometry, but do I ever use it? No.

Education should be used to give young people the tools to do what they want in life. That isn’t to say they know what they want right now, but education should be used to open doors and not close them. Education should continually give young people opportunities. What that means for each individual learner will look different. But, schools should be responsive to the students they have in front of them not the students they want to have.

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