Guest post by Bobby Bennett
In 2012, I became principal of my alma mater—only the second alumnus since the 1890s to have such an opportunity. No pressure! Eager to begin the work of serving my community and school improvement, I held a series of meetings with staff and the school community over the course of the first three months. These meetings would shape our work for the next five years. In fact, what we learned and put into practice not only yielded academic success, it transformed the culture of our school.
Our story is like many eastern Kentucky communities where the loss of the coal industry has created great economic hardship. Regardless of the outside struggles, we still had a building filled with kids who needed hope and help. Analyzing state testing data provided insight into academic issues, but it gave almost no information as to the reasons for us to be where we were. What we needed were causal connections. Our assistant principal and I discussed safety and behavioral program needs. Our counselor, department chairs, and I examined our college and career readiness approach and discovered we needed to overhaul our schedule while designing new pathways for our students. However, our most important discoveries were made during a series of meetings with our student government officers.
The discussions that transpired with the student leaders were insightful and inspiring. They were eager to be heard. Their understanding of our environment was clear, and their mature, positive approach to change was incredible. Our discussions led us to create a motto, redesign a school logo, perform a yearlong study of a cen
tury of school history, bring back lost traditions, and focus on whole student development.
By the end of this first year the metamorphosis was in full swing. We talked daily about the phrase we created: “Yellow Jacket PRIDE: Persistence, Respect, Integrity, Determination, and Excellence.” All decisions were rooted in the best interest of students and the impact on our culture. We held monthly class meetings and discussed the connections between choices and consequences, attitude and behavior, school and life. In every conversation we had with students, we openly discussed the importance of having a positive attitude and making thoughtful choices. These meetings played an integral role in changing our culture. The kids even called me their principal and life coach.
The student government wanted to produce a new logo that would speak to the history of our school and the essence of what we could be. They decided on “Tradition. Pride. Excellence.” It worked. Everyone bought into the phrase, and now it’s a staple of our culture.
Since 2012, our school has enjoyed steady academic growth. We’ve seen improvements in ACT performance, state testing results, college and career readiness; a reduction in the number of students scoring at the novice level; and Kentucky GAP closures in achievement, opportunity, and learning. In addition, our graduation percentage rate has been consistently in the mid-nineties since 2013. While all of the successes we’ve enjoyed for the past five years have had a strong connection to an excellent, dedicated faculty, individual and group data monitoring, recreating our instructional design and curricular offerings amidst a multitude of other small changes, the key was—and continues to be—student voice.
By listening to our kids, we created an environment that was all inclusive. Once they realized that their voice was important and had an impact on our decisions, the culture experienced a dramatic shift. The formula for our success was fairly simple: Give every shareholder an equal voice, but listen most closely to the students. It is all about the students, their success and future.
The insightful opinions and ideas of the student government officers shaped the positive change that occurred in our high school. They helped to create an improved culture and climate that allowed for a focus on learning. Preparing for life’s journey through discussions, examination, and change has become a key process at our school. Listening to the voice of our students changed our school—and me.
How do you hear what your students think? Does student voice play a role in the decision-making process of your school? We would love to hear about it!
Bobby Bennett serves as the principal of Middlesboro High School (MHS) in Middlesboro, KY. MHS has been a Proficient and Distinguished ranked Kentucky high school since 2013 and was a 2017 U.S. News and World Report Best High School. Bennett is the president of the KASSP, president of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators Center for Education Leadership, and was the 2017 Kentucky Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BobBennett16.