Guest post by Chuck Rinkes
When I became principal of River View High School (RVHS) in 2007, our building met the academic excellence standards, and our community was pleased by our high ranking. But despite these achievements, neither our superintendent nor I were happy with the overall building culture. We witnessed unhealthy interactions between our stakeholders, students expressed negative feelings about our school, and there was an overall sense of stress and anxiety amongst the staff. In order to rise to the next level and become a great school, we needed to improve our overall culture.
Who did I need to speak with to truly get an understanding of our school culture needs? I realized that the best people to ask were the ones who inhabit the building for seven hours a day: the students. Senior interviews began eleven years ago and continue today. I now conduct over 150 senior interviews each year, and this process hasbecome a rite of passage for seniors to sit down with their principal and have a conversation about their high school experience and next steps. In addition, these interviews give me valuable feedback about our school culture.
The process of senior interviews is simple. Each student schedules an interview with me that is conducted before winter break. Students select a preset time slot by signing up online via Google Calendar or by contacting my secretary. The time slots are 15 minutes but some can last up to an hour depending on the student. I ask each student these same ten questions and follow up with others depending on their answers, the discussion, and our rapport:
- What is your plan for next year? Job? College (major)?
- What teacher(s) has been a great influence on you over the years at RV? Could be a teacher in another school.
- What do you like about RVHS?
- What is something we need to do a better job of at RVHS?
- How has RVHS changed over the years you have been a student? How has the culture (the way students interact) changed?
- If you could go back to your freshman year, what is something you would change?
- What is going to be your LEGACY? How are people going to remember you after you graduate?
- What advice do you have for our teaching staff? Meaning, “If you would just do this, students in your class would really learn?”
- Any advice for new teachers?
- Goal for yourself this year?
- One word that you want to use to describe how you want your senior year to go?
Crafting a Legacy
At RVHS, we focus on leaving a legacy that others can be proud of when they hear our name. This legacy question gets to the heart of who you are as a student at RVHS. We have signage in the building asking students about their legacy. I try to get all seniors interviewed before the end of the first semester so that if they are unsure of their legacy, they have the rest of the year to craft it.
What I’ve realized through this process is that we do not give our students enough credit for their perspectives and perceptions of the school. Our students have given me insight into many areas, including their impressions of our guidance office and suggestions to improve it. They have given me perspective on building procedures such as parking issues and cafeteria inefficiencies. Their frustrations about connectivity and finding a quiet place to study led to direct WiFi access and a separate lounge for our College Credit Plus students.
Understanding what students have to say about school culture has not only kept me more informed, it has also helped me set priorities about ways to improve our culture. For example, when seniors voiced a concern about our school being divided and a desire for a stronger community, we organized an activity schedule within the school day where clubs and activities meet semimonthly with their advisor. Seniors also voiced concerns for more opportunities to express their creativity and interests. As a result, we increased our club and activity offerings and added an intramural program.
The ideas resulting from senior interviews have allowed me to help students cultivate a school culture that seniors now describe as friendly, close knit, welcoming, and respectful. River View High School is now a positive school community where students are proud to be a Black Bear.
Senior interviews remind students that it is their building, and they need to take ownership of not only their own learning but also the culture of the building. Our conversation serves as a catalyst to propel seniors to make the most of their final year, and, in doing so, they pave the way for the rest of the student body to have a positive school experience.
How does your school gather student input on its culture? Could senior interviews help you gain this direct feedback?
Chuck Rinkes is the principal of River View High School in Warsaw, OH. He is the 2018 Ohio Principal of the Year. Chuck is also the 2014 President of OASSA and the 2007 President of Ohio’s Baseball Coaches Association (OHSBCA). Follow him on Twitter @Chuckrinkes.