Advocating for More Supportive Education
Shaker senior Danielle Tall is inspired by her learning and mental health experiences to innovate school for others
January 20, 2022
Editor’s Note: This story has been revised March 7, 2022 to clarify a course name and Danielle Tall’s relationship with her niece and nephew.
Danielle Tall, a senior at the Innovative Center for Personalized Learning, is changing education through her work as the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion intern, a part time private tutor and a Minority Achievement Committee mentor.
In fall 2014, Shaker converted the lower level of the Stephanie Tubbs Jones Community Building into a progressive learning space for students, called the Innovative Center for Personalized Learning. Marla Robinson, the district Chief Academic Officer said in its beginnings, the IC was essentially an alternative setting for students struggling at the high school main campus. Students followed a self paced, blended learning model where they came in person to complete online instruction.
However, Tall’s story begins with generations of Shaker graduates and moving around the city throughout her youth. Her mother founded her own local law practice in 2011, which led to financial insecurity when Tall was in fourth grade. “When I was younger, she worked for her own practice basically, so a lot of the time when clients weren’t paying on time, she would send out these invoices but they weren’t paying, there was no money coming in,” Tall explained.
According to Tall, the constant moving created a sense of instability at home for her. “I never had that childlike experience where I was like, ‘Oh I can come home and feel comfortable and decorate
my room and really be like this is my safe space,’ because the moment I got comfortable I needed to pack up and leave again,” she said.
As she grew older, she became used to it, but it was hard to balance mental health with school and home life. “I was actually diagnosed with depression in 5th grade, but my mother was very reluctant to that diagnosis so she didn’t get me treated for it or anything,” Tall said. “It got to the point where it had gotten so bad that I was actually having suicidal ideations and everything. I was a straight A student, never even got a B, and then now all of a sudden I’m getting D’s and F’s.”
All of the anxiety and pressure Tall felt progressed as she entered middle school and by the end of 7th grade she was preparing to skip a year. “It just wasn’t a supportive environment for me, especially for someone who’s already struggling at home and within themselves as well, ” Tall said.
Tall arrived at the high school in 2017 on track to graduate with the class of 2021. She thought getting away from the middle school and transitioning into the high school environment would realign her mentally and academically, but soon began to fall back into the same patterns. “I started off really really solid, really well, in 9th grade, and then after a while the same thing happened. I started tanking, my grades started flunking and I stopped coming to school a lot,” Tall said.
Tall’s battle with her mental health continued for the next two years, and midway through her junior year, her home environment made it unbearable. Tall began serving as a caretaker for her niece and nephew, both of which were infants at the time, while also going to school. In October 2019, Tall stopped coming to school and decided she needed to take the year off.
In lieu of figuring out where to go next, Tall got connected to the IC through her counselor and mother in spring 2020. At the time, the IC was only in its fifth school year, and they used an online, third party platform called Edgenuity for students to watch videos and earn the credits they needed. “When I had first been introduced to the IC it was very unorganized and just not appealing at all. It wasn’t supportive at all, it just felt like online learning that was just the same at the high school but in a different way,” Tall said.
Around the same time the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were beginning, which only added to Tall’s mental burden. Tall continued to use Edgenuity in her own way, by taking the video transcripts, copying and pasting them into google docs, and creating lesson plan folders for her coursework. Tall used her own lesson plans to take notes, pass her tests and attain more credit in history and math. Eventually, her educational journey was disrupted once again by mental health and her home environment, when she only had one math unit left. Tall wasn’t sleeping or eating and rarely even had time alone, as she was sharing a room with her mom. “I got so extremely upset and I felt like I was just reverting back to how I used to feel with my mental health issues and so I felt really depressed and hopeless really,” Tall said.
The turning point in Tall’s high school career happened when Matt Simon, the newly hired IC Coordinator, caught wind of her “hijacking the system” in an email chain with her mother and counselors. Simon reinvited her to the IC, but now in student-coordinator collaboration to foster a more supportive, project-based learning environment. Tall still considers this school year her “year off,” and in Summer 2020 she decided to repeat her junior year, starting with IC classes from the beginning of the year. Tall was back on her original track before she skipped her 8th grade year, in line to graduate with the class of 2022.
In summer 2021, Tall expanded her work with Simon into the Shaker school’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion Department by voicing her story with DEI administrators and providing solutions. “I was sharing how I felt about how unsupported I felt at the high school and at the middle school and I felt like I was just kinda in the shadows of the school district. I had just been pushed into this alternative school and it wasn’t until they got a new supervisor that things started to change for the better,” Tall said.
Tall also got involved with the IC’s summer program, Team Fortitude, which was a majority Black, student led mentor program. She was able to facilitate conversations with the students and IC teachers about racism as a whole and race relations within our community. They discussed the impacts of the BLM protests and the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ mental health. Tall said she felt safe in the Team Fortitude space, and was inspired to do more with the DEI department.
Nathaniel Reese, the Minority Achievement Committee Scholars Advisor, who was also present at Team Fortitude, offered Tall a temporary student intern position within the DEI department as a leader of MAC Scholars Summer Enrichment Program. Tall worked with rising Black 5th graders Monday through Thursday in July 2021 to prepare for Woodbury and build a minority support system.
In her internship, Tall got connected with Tiara Sargeant, the Student Group on Race Relations advisor who was newly appointed as the DEI Coordinator. Sargeant and Tall built a strong personal and work relationship, and by the start of the 2021 school year Tall became Sargeant’s personal DEI intern. Despite her title, Tall said most of her work is in collaboration with all of the DEI department leaders. “I do really cool projects. So right now, like I’m working on this critical race theory social media campaign and doing a lot of research on that and the house bills 322 and 327 and how that affects us and how that affects our education,” Tall said.
There is a strong overlap between Tall’s academic setup at the IC and her internship work with the DEI department. The IC’s project-based learning style allows Tall to earn core subject credits from completing DEI projects, such as her CRT campaign.
Despite her heavy workload, Tall says her passion for supportive education is her number one motivation. “It’s not just a job, it actually really means something to me,” Tall said, “This is something that can outlive me.”
Tall also has her own private tutoring business for second to ninth grade students on all subjects, which she started in Sept. 2021. Most of her students are Black and she said she feels as though she’s giving back and modeling the IC’s “passion and purpose” learning standards. “One thing that I want to always do for my students is explain why they are learning certain things, because when you don’t have a purpose then what’s the point in engaging in it or putting your effort into it? So one thing I focus on is restoring that passion and purpose,” Tall said.
From project-based learning to DEI, Tall is inspired to make a positive impact on the students in Shaker. “We have a lot of struggling students and that’s just the truth so something needs to change. We have a lot of students that don’t feel comfortable or supported so something needs to change. We have a lot of students that feel like they’ve been pushed into the shadows of the district, so why? Why do they feel like that and how can we help them?” Tall said.
She said her struggles within school and home are what have honed her innate desire to help other students, but it was the IC where she could look to the future. “I had grown to love learning when I was younger because I didn’t really like the home environment, so I would crave going to school. I love being knowledgeable in different subjects. I feel like the IC has restored that and I’m finally excited to learn again,” Tall said. Tall hopes to take her primary goal of education reform beyond Shaker and high school to study education at a historically Black college or university. “Ultimately I wanna go to an HBCU and Howard is my top choice,” Tall said, “I want to go to school for education because I’d like to, at the lowest level, become a superintendent, but at the highest level, become the Secretary of Education.”
Right now a typical day in her life spans from 7:30 a.m. when she wakes up for school at the IC to 8:00 a.m. when she gets home from tutoring at the library. “I work all day, every day,” Tall continued, “I’m very, very determined and very ambitious.”
In her remaining months at the IC, Tall is working on building up to her graduation and creating a project that can conclude everything she’s done in her high school career. “One thing I’d like to do is just showcase that and show how much improvement we’ve made and how far we’ve come despite how far we have to go,” Tall said.
Tall still makes time for mental health and prioritizes being with friends over the weekend to maintain “the most stable” she’s been. Ultimately, her journey of self acceptance is central to the work she does and wants to continue to do.
Tall said, “One thing about it is I’m not a normal kid, and I don’t think I ever was a normal kid, and I’ve accepted that.”