Leading with Courage, Conviction & Community - Sonn Sam

In December 2016, school leaders from across the Big Picture Learning network gathered to discuss what it means to lead with Courage, Conviction, and Community. We've collected these narratives and are releasing them as part of our Big Picture Learning Leadership Stories podcast. Catch the whole series here, and listen to our first episode -- featuring Sonn Sam - below. 

I am not my report card.

If you reviewed my K-12 report cards, they would only tell you half my story.  At a glance, they would say I was “at risk” or “low performing”.  My mother’s unconditional love of saying she’s proud of me no matter how I performed, but her face confirmed otherwise. My report card screamed I was a failure.  However, even though I did not fit my schools, I was not a failure.  Even though I did not excel in the traditional school model, I thrived outside of school.  I pursued my passions and in the process, learned invaluable life lessons that brought me success in college, career, fatherhood and beyond.

From the traditional lens, my report card would tell the story of a young man that was not committed to his future, didn’t have his priorities straight, was lazy, came from a broken home or just another lost urban youth sprinting towards a life of poverty.  However, if you dug a little deeper, you would find a kid who just didn’t fit his schools.  You would find a kid who possessed untapped potential and talent, but his schools did not have systems or strategies to nurture them.  Although his report card labeled him a failure, this young man played organized sports and earned the position of captain in his senior year.  A young man who loved to breakdance for a local nonprofit to teach children to stay away from smoking.  A young man that spent his summer as a camp counselor for urban youth.  A young man who loved theater and played the leading role of a school production that won the regional championship. A self taught barber who found an apprenticeship and brought income into his household.  A school news anchor that celebrated school spirit and helped produce weekly broadcasts.  As I flourished in all these extra curricular activities outside of school, I was learning about life and how to be successful.  However, when I returned to the classroom and took my seat, I felt like the failure my report card said I was….

So what happens to all those students like me who get pigeon holed by traditional school systems or get stuck in their own minds?  How many of our youth learn to believe that because of their report cards, they are incapable of greatness.  Although the unimpressive graduation rates and alarming dropout rates are bleak, this drives me to do more to help schools fit each student.  It was not a mistake that I chose Big Picture Learning as the model to start my career.  I belong here.  One student at a time, I will carry out my belief and my vision that the school can fit the student as an individual.  

Dr. Sonn Sam is the Chief Innovation Officer at East Side High School in Newark, NJ.