School started. It’s been a few crazy busy weeks as you can imagine. And no matter where I am in St. Joseph, so many people both in education and within the community stop me and ask, “How is school going so far?” It’s a typical question to ask a principal. But I do often wonder if people ask me that in a way that someone asks of an octogenarian, “How are you doing?”
At Benton High School, I am honestly and happily able to report this is the best school year start I have experienced as a principal. Now I do follow that up with a humorous search for some sort of wood product to knock on, but I am soundly serious about it being the best start ever. I can’t quite place my finger on the single factor contributing to our solid start, but if I were a betting woman, I would place a bet on the fact that our staff has decided to engage our students at a level we never have before.
SAFE & CIVIL SCHOOLS: This year, our staff decided to focus on engaging our students at being safe in school. Our professional development has led us to talking with our students about behaviors that are important to the learning environment and general civility (“We don’t use that mouth in the South”), and I am noticing more staff members and students working together to make this happen. Our honest conversations about expected behaviors have allowed us to quickly build trust, and with that we have grown a early, strong foundation for learning to happen. Additionally, our staff also learned that it is tough to “raise” 900 students, and that we have to back each other up in order to do this job together. I have found myself sharing two important sayings with different people that I think we need to incorporate into this message for my staff since it really has taken hold at our school: It takes time to learn to work as a team, and it takes a village to raise a child.
WALK THROUGHS: Another level of engagement is having the three administrators conduct walk throughs on a highly regular basis. It’s amazing how this has raised the level of visibility not only of our administrative team, but the teachers and students as well. As the feedback of the walk through is shared with all three parties, it allows us to collaborate on issues to improve school operations at a level we have never experienced before. I am really sort of amazed by it at this point. The walk through data collection document I created (see “Are We Engaged?) in August is one that I have been test driving and using to give feedback to our departments as well as to talk with students. The students have definite opinions about what does and doesn’t help them learn in the classroom. Connecting what the teachers are teaching to what the students think they are learning seems so easy, but what an eye-opener that is turning out to be!
STUDENT VOICE: This year, we started by asking our student government leaders to take ownership in several of our academic and operational initiatives to see if that helped our students engage with our staff. It was a hit. Our Student Council President returned to the microphone after three years of a secretary taking care of the task to read the school announcements. In addition, we have also asked our Senior Class President to share the Word of the Week — one aspect of our school’s literacy plan. Our students have started to seek out new initiatives for school improvement and are using student government and partnering with their teachers to make a difference in our school. I feel like this is one area we have barely tapped the potential, and I look forward to seeing great things happen with our student leadership.
CAMP: At Benton High School, CAMP stands for Cardinal Advisement and Mentoring Program. This is an advisement program that I feel our staff has made shine. Not only did our teachers initially “draft” for students in their CAMPs, but now they have spent an entire year with the same students who are back with them for year two. These students spent the first year with their CAMP teacher talking about their grades, understanding their national and state assessment scores (such as MAP EOC or ACT scores), as well as discussing what they want to do after high school or what classes they want to take next semester. CAMP is special. This year our great counseling department has decided to take the CAMP program to a whole new level. They are giving themes to each week. They are making daily announcements talking to CAMPs and reminding them of what work needs to be completed. They are asking staff and students about what big concerns we have at our school so we can deal with them during CAMP. We are still working on data, but we are working with data with purpose. I see CAMP becoming more efficient and more effective. I knew CAMP and counselors were a good fit.
Like I said earlier, I can’t put my finger on any one thing that has helped our school year start better this year, but it really is better. I heard one staff member tell another one that it seemed so good this year they were just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’ve heard several conversations among staff and students claiming the excitement of what a good year it has been so far, many wondering how and why.
I know how and why. Because it’s a good year.