Helping Students Thrive at Metcalfe Community Academy
SCHOOLS | August 28, 2021
Helping Students Thrive at Metcalfe Community Academy

Mr. Mikal Clay, the school culture coordinator at Metcalfe Community Academy in West Pullman, believes that students are like bottles. You can’t pour anything into them until you open them up, which he explains requires collaborative efforts from a school’s entire staff and community. For teachers and staff who feel like they are putting in work but not seeing any progress, he has another analogy. 

“A lot of times, I hear complaints that someone is pouring into the students and putting in the work but the kids just aren’t getting it,” he says. “It’s like pumping $20 worth of gas but you poured it on the trunk. Yes, you spent the money, and, yes, it was the right liquid. But the car didn’t get it because you didn’t open it up.” 

With students returning back to school five days each week—some for the first time in over a year—Mr. Clay believes that school staff need to establish a welcoming school culture by focusing on empathy. By being forgiving and understanding, he furthers his goal of equipping each student with life skills, healthy behaviors, and a sense of purpose. These qualities combine to create a culture of learning at Metcalfe; once a student sees their purpose, thriving in subjects like math and science follows. 

This is Mr. Clay’s second time being a Metcalfe employee. A South Side native himself, he left the school and hopped between a few other schools in the area before returning to Metcalfe in 2018. He compares his relationship to the school at that time as having an unfinished assignment he needed to complete. 

Beyond his job, one of the ways he creates a strong school culture is by serving as the school’s basketball coach. In his first year, all three Metcalfe basketball teams won a championship for the first time in school history. Over the summer, you can often find Metcalfe students—and even graduates of the school—playing basketball in the school’s gym, a sign of the strong relationships that Mr. Clay has forged with his students. 

“Each of my students should have a championship mentality and know how to work hard both on and off the basketball court,” he said. “They need to be champions in math. They need to be champions in English. They need to be champions in preventing conflict. They need to be champions in forgiveness. They need to be champions in critical thinking.” 

Supporting students in becoming champions across all areas of their education usually starts with identifying the habits that are keeping them from reaching their full potential. 

This past year, students showed incredible progress in their attendance. In February, Metcalfe had one of the lowest attendance rates on the entire South Side. To boost them, Mr. Clay and his colleagues implemented everything from home visits to assemblies to ensure each family had proper technology and the motivation to attend school more consistently. Pretty soon, their attendance rate had gone from the bottom to the top. 

“With the students, we have to understand that none of us are perfect and we’re going to make mistakes, but we need to try to not make the same mistakes over and over,” he said. “If a student is struggling, I like to ask them intentional questions like ‘What are three things that made you smile today?’ If you make it a challenge, I guarantee they’ll have those three things by the end of the day.” 

Mr. Clay’s entire philosophy in creating supportive learning environments can be best summed up by a recitation that he teaches each of his students—The Money Shot. He asks the questions, and the students respond. 

What is a money shot?
A money shot is good. 

Why is it good?
Because it determines if you win or lose. 

Who is your opponent?
It doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter?
Because the shot I take is the truth I live. 

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