We hear it all the time. “Students should take ownership of their school.” But how do we make that happen?
Last spring, my colleagues and I began the process of transforming Childersburg High School (CHS), which serves nearly 500 students in rural Talladega County, Ala., with a sharp focus on college and career readiness. Many changes were primarily about pedagogy and learning tools: the instructional shift to a project-based learning curriculum; the addition of advanced placement courses and honors pathways to increase academic rigor; the addition of desktop computers, Smart Boards, and networked printers to all classrooms; and a course-management system to facilitate the new digital environment. Good stuff.
But the best part of this transformation has been the dramatic shift in school culture. It’s true: Students at our school demonstrate their ownership of their learning community each and every day. I pinch myself often, just to make certain that I’m not dreaming. Here are some strategies that worked for us—and may work for you.
Challenge Students to Dream
Our student leadership team visited schools with progressive academic programs and strong school cultures—and met the student leaders at these schools. These exchanges were really important.
When students were processing what they’d seen and heard, I prompted them with questions at first. But soon the students caught on, realizing that we really did want them to imagine the possibilities!
Back at school, students compiled a list of everything they liked and a separate list of what would fit in their school. At this point, they had to decide what they needed most from their school. (Tip: Take plenty of time to do this. This is not an end-of-the-day, 10-minute activity!)
Next, students shared their ideas with the faculty, presenting a prioritized list of changes that would make their school what they needed. We revisit this list often—it serves as a catalyst for continued progress.
Invite Students to Articulate Their School’s New Identity
The next step was for student leaders to create foundational documents. Our student leaders created two: the CHS Tiger Creed (describing in their own words what they believe as students) and the CHS Tiger Testimony (illustrating exactly what students must expect from themselves at school). This took all day. (And the fact that it was an entire day of their summer vacation speaks volumes about their commitment!)
They shared these statements with the faculty and offered insights on how the creed and testimony might take hold with all students once school began in the fall.
Over the last five months, I’ve often laughed to myself as I’ve watched our students host visitors to their school. You’d think they were showing off a new sports car—you can’t miss the pride in their voices.
Who visits? Community leaders, business leaders, current and retired teachers, students, administrators from other schools, district administrators, school board members, parents, booster club members, and feeder schools. You get the idea. Students just need an audience.
To prepare, I created “tour notes” to help our guides practice. They have embellished the notes and enjoy training new recruits to lead the tours. My part is infinitesimal. I’m basically a logistics coordinator—they do the rest.
Students benefit from this kind of program: The tour guides have authentic opportunities to polish their communication skills and the general student body realizes that its school is worthy of admiration. (A bonus: Hosting visitors is great PR for your school!)
Err on the Side of Information Overload
Keeping students informed is one of the most important ways to maintain a positive climate. Use technology (Twitter, Facebook, the school’s webpage, etc.) to inform students of academic information, athletic news, coming events, and other important school announcements. We constantly remind students to stay informed via Moodle (our course management system), and teachers regularly spend a few minutes during class reviewing school information. It’s challenging to make sure that students are aware of what’s going on—but it’s a critical part of helping them feel connected.
Ask for Feedback—and Then Involve Students in Implementation
We like to survey our students. We ask about school initiatives, extracurricular activities, school culture, and more. You can show students you are listening to them by using the results to make changes and improvements. Ask students to assist in making the changes they ask for—in many cases, they can help implement new programs and activities.
Involve Students in the Hiring Process
Have students serve on the interview panel for new employees. Hiring is one of the most important aspects of a school, so giving students input into the process communicates something significant. After training them on basic laws governing the interview process, allow students to ask questions and provide feedback to administrators. Students have amazing insights and can bring fresh perspectives to the hiring process.
Start a Peer-Advising Program
A peer-advising program is another win-win. My colleagues and I are currently working on an initiative to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience: our senior students.
Many seniors have taken college-entrance exams, applied to college, chosen a field of interest or study, applied for financial aid and scholarships, and visited campuses. Even at a small school, it’s difficult for one school counselor (more, if you’re lucky) to have one-on-one or small-group conversations with students about all of these topics, in addition to other duties. So why not encourage seniors to share their experiences with underclassmen before they graduate? I’m thrilled to be developing a course for the Student College and Career Library Assistant program that we’ll launch in the fall.
At Childersburg High School, our students aren’t studying leadership. They are practicing leadership by creating the school they want and need. We have much more to do to become the school our students imagined last spring. But I know we are on the right track. As you and your colleagues work to create the most effective school possible, don’t forget to partner with the best allies you have: your students.