Dr. Kent Paredes Scribner has been the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, the largest high school district in Arizona, since 2008. Dr. Scribner has led several successful educational initiatives during his tenure, thus far. He implemented the mission of “Preparing every student for success in college, career and life,” and the District has responded. Each District school was rated either Performing, Performing Plus, Highly Performing or Excelling by the State of Arizona’s “Arizona Learns” system in 2011. In 2013, Phoenix Union’s upward trajectory continued as they yet again increased the number of “A” and “B” schools in the Arizona Department of Education’s Accountability Rankings. Honors and Advanced Placement course-taking has more than doubled. The Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) curriculum has been introduced on every comprehensive campus. The number of students both applying for earning acceptance to college has dramatically increased. Financial resources offered to Phoenix Union students has skyrocketed as well, going from $17.8 million in merit scholarships in 2009, to over $40 million in merit scholarships in both 2012 and 2013. In October 2011, President Barack Obama appointed Dr. Scribner to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. Scribner is frequently called upon by business leaders, community organizations and educational institutions to share his expertise on urban education, speak at conferences, conduct media interviews, and serve on numerous committees. Born in Los Angeles, California, Scribner earned a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Carleton College in Minnesota, a M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology from Temple University and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Arizona State University. He began his education career as a high school Spanish teacher in Philadelphia. He moved to Arizona in 1992 and became a graduate research assistant at Arizona State University, where he examined issues of quality and diversity in Phoenix Union regarding the district’s court-ordered desegregation. Before he joined Phoenix Union, Scribner, was the superintendent of the Isaac Elementary School District in Phoenix from 2003 to 2008. Scribner, who received the Excellence in Educational Leadership Award from the University Council of Educational Administration in 2008, is married and has two children.

Education practitioners are faced with questions about how best to help their students reach their full potential. How do we motivate our youth to succeed in their current school environments? How do we encourage them to become involved in their respective communities? How do we ensure that this smart, enterprising generation of young people grows into thoughtful adults who pursue their dreams and aspire to make a difference in the world?

Frequently, educators grasp at a new program, a new curriculum or a new “shiny thing” to accomplish the lofty goals we have for our students. As a leader of a large urban district, I have seen numerous policies, curricular changes and partnerships come across my desk that attempt to address diversity, motivation and student preparation for today’s competitive global economy. It is extremely challenging to sort through and decide which initiatives can be effective and implemented successfully.

How do we as teachers and leaders motivate our students in a world of both great diversity and great “connectedness”? 

What really makes the difference?  What propels action?  While updated programs, technology and curricula can be effective tools to achieve change, they are no substitute for relationships. Relationships can be created through brief moments of connectedness between two people.  Sometimes that connectedness is formed through a story, an experience, or a commonality, but there are also more stable relationships that are formed over time, possibly through small but frequent interactions.  I observed the power of this former type of relationship today at a “No Place for Hate” assembly in one of our high schools.  I’ve been to many assemblies on a variety of topics and I’ve heard many messages intended to both facilitate change and teach our students.  I’m typically reminded during these times that we are confronting age-old issues and challenges.

The topic of the aforementioned assembly was putting a stop to bullying, hatred and intolerance.  The message was delivered by a Holocaust survivor. I was very moved by the powerful message that he conveyed. However, I was especially heartened to witness the reactions of our students.  They were a captive audience – they were “engaged.” While the auditorium was silent through most of the presentation, there were moments when you truly knew how connected the students were to what they were hearing and learning. They gasped at the depictions of hatred he spoke of when recalling his time as a young, Jewish teenager in Poland. However, they smiled and laughed during the softer moments when he spoke about being in Canada and meeting his wife for the first time.

Our young people today live in a highly technological world, many times spending a majority of their days tethered to their smartphones or tablets. However, during this moment of their day, their cell phones were set to silent and I didn’t see anyone sending text messages of surfing the Internet. Instead, they were captivated by an amazing man sharing his incredible story. In only an hour he formed a relationship with these students. He encouraged them through his experiences and urged them to build upon their inherent goodness. You could just feel the presence of an unspoken sense of camaraderie.

I didn’t leave thinking we need another “fix it” session, book, class, or program. Instead, I left feeling a real sense of hope. When we tap into our common humanity, whether it’s through service, stories or our work together, we form genuine connections. Relationships matter.

Through the formation of relationships we can nurture what allowed this man to survive one of the greatest atrocities in the history of humankind. We can nurture a sense of oneself; a sense of pride and confidence. He repeatedly told our students, “I am proud to be what I am,” and encouraged them to do the same.

When students are nurtured through strong relationships they become proud of who they are. When they feel the connectedness in our common humanity they build the confidence to stand up for what is right and against what is wrong.

The Holocaust survivor built a relationship with an auditorium full of students in an hour through his story. This relationship created through this survivor’s story mattered—I saw it in the faces of the students.  In schools, teachers, mentors, and peers have opportunities to build relationships that matter just as much.  Maybe they are not built through stories as powerful as the Holocaust survivor’s, but they are built through something just as powerful—time. There are opportunities everyday over the course of a school year (or more) to build relationships with students by tapping into that spark of humanity that exists within each one of us to create school communities where students want to learn through these strong relationships.


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2 Responses to “Motivating 21st Century Learners by Kent Scribner”

  1. J. Bert Freeman on 12/24/13 12:42 PM US/Eastern

    Dr. Scribner’s blog was enlightening and focused. For me, it reinforced how important it is to ensure that establishing relationships is an important part of a teacher’s performance and delivery for student success.

    Also, it helps me to understand the importance of developing relationships with each other for student success.

  2. Kate Anderson on 1/1/14 6:38 PM US/Eastern

    I am interested in hiring practices that will increase equitable services to students~ does anyone have resources that will get to the this issue; sample interview questions, etc?

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