positive school culture

Creating an Environment for Innovation Though Evaluation and Feedback: 8 Tips and Warnings

Guest post by Anthony Scannella and Sharon McCarthy:

Which do you think helps individuals and systems flourish during these transformational times: a bit of risk, a bit of failure and a good deal of feedback–or safely doing what has always been done? If you favor risk, failure and feedback, please read on. If you choose safety in complacency, save yourself some time and make a different decision.

We define effective feedback as a tool that supports professional growth in your school or system. But before we talk about what makes feedback effective, it is essential to consider the much celebrated belief that “there is no such thing as failure—only feedback.” In theory, this is supposed to help our egos cope with our mistakes. In reality, most of us secretly hope to be told how amazing our teaching or leading is, and hearing otherwise makes us both uncomfortable and defensive. Keep that very real human tendency in mind when sharing feedback.

Below are 8 suggestions for leaders whose focus is growth, in folks and in systems:

  1. Ask others how they prefer to receive the feedback. This is the baseline for respect.
  2. Know that while sharing feedback will help you and your colleagues improve, it will also cause most folks to squirm a bit—that is OK.
  3. Differentiate feedback based on the rating of the performance. (Please see: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-03-15/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism-ratio.html)
  4. Provide feedback in a way that caters to the receiver’s value system. People pay attention more to things they find important.
  5. Follow feedback basics: Feedback should be timely, specific, actionable, and connected to goals and practice.
  6. Create a structure for feedback—one that consistently communicates how things are going.
  7. Keep in mind that people generally change their behavior when provided with an environment that encourages change and specific cognitive maps that outline a “plan” in their heads. Therefore, the onus is on the leader/evaluator to ensure that the environment and maps, which Art Costa refers to as “mental rehearsals,” are clearly communicated in a culture of high expectations. (Costa, Arthur & Garmston, R. Cognitive Coaching. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 1994.)
  8. Remain keenly aware of the fact that the meaning of your communication is the response that it elicits, regardless of your intentions. As many have experienced, the intended message is not always the received message.

How educational leaders model the practice of effective feedback for teachers not only helps teachers in improving their own performance but also provides mental models of effective practices for teachers to use with their own students. Feedback matters in every relationship in the schoolhouse! Synthesizing more than 900 educational meta-analyses, researcher John Hattie has found that effective feedback is among the most powerful influences on how people learn. (John Hattie, Know Thy Impact. Educational Leadership, Feedback for Learning, September 2012, Vol. 70, No. 1.)

Please join us at Ignite’14 to share thoughts and practices regarding this most fundamental of educational practices for positive transformation.

Anthony Scannella (@edufea, scannella.anthony@gmail.com) and Sharon McCarthy (@ienvision, ienvision@mac.com) will present Sustainable Results for Great Schools on Saturday, February 8 at Ignite ’14. For more information visit www.nasspconference.org.

Read their article “Teacher Evaluation: Adversity or Opportunity?” online in the January 2014 issue of Principal Leadership.

New Family Tours: Do They Get What They Expect?

Jimmy Casas

Guest post by Jimmy Casas:

I still remember the day I received the phone call offering me the principal position at my current school.  That was twelve years ago!  I can honestly say, like many of you, I have invested my life into our school community in many ways.  Growing up, my parents demanded hard work. They expected it, they modeled it, and they lived it.  They convinced me that hard work was the key to success.  They took immense pride in the fact that what they lacked in education, they made up for it in terms of work ethic.  My father would often holler at me, “You get out of it what you put into it!”

Ironic how the things our parents said to us when we were children often return full circle, not only in our expectations, but in how we behave.  They even get passed down from generation to generation at the expense of our own children sometimes, which I am sure my kids would attest to. His words have hung with me all of my life, sometimes to a fault. Sometimes though, his words move me in a way that makes me proud to be his son because his words make up a part of who I am.

Last week I had the distinct privilege of touring three new families who were trying to decide which school to enroll their children in.  Like the hiring process (of someone wanting to teach in our school), the idea of a family possibly wanting to enroll their student in our school gets me jacked up! It is something I look forward to so much that at times I literally cannot sleep the night before because I cannot wait to get to school the next day and share our school community with them.  I do not apologize for my energy, my passion, or the excitement I share with the families when they visit. I am proud! I am proud of what our school has to offer our students, our staff, our families, and our community.  I once had a visiting superintendent tell me that although the school was a large school, it had a small school feel to it. That was the biggest compliment anyone could have given us because to me it meant that it felt like a caring community. I have never forgotten that comment and to this day aspire to maintain that same feeling in our school.

I am always honored when I am able to take time and showcase our school community.  Here are a few examples of our best and next practices in touring new families:

  1. Schedule the building tours with the principal – In many high schools, this practice is often delegated to a school counselor or other building administrator.   I have always wondered why any principal would not take advantage of the opportunity to be the first person to welcome a new visiting family or more importantly, to spend time getting to know a potential new student.  Think about the message you are sending when you won’t give a new family and student 90 minutes of your time.  Mindset:  Models to student and family they are the most important people walking through our doors every day.
  2. Office secretaries can make or break the deal before a new family ever walks in the door – Don’t ever underestimate the importance of the impact your office secretaries can have on a new family regarding their choice for a new school when they are calling to inquire about a visit/tour.  A positive first impression goes a long way with parents and a negative first impression will quickly decrease the chance of a new family selecting your school ten-fold.  Trust me. I have had many families tell me they crossed off school XYZ because of the way they were treated by the Principal’s secretary.  Mindset:  No student or family who calls or enters the main office is an inconvenience. In fact, they are the purpose of why we are here.  Never forget that.
  3. Tours should be scheduled during the school day – If at all possible, I would encourage you to schedule all visits during the school day.  It is critical for the visiting student and his/her parents to get a feel of the climate in our school and what #BettPride is all about.  This is nearly impossible to simulate without students in the building. I want them to experience first-hand how welcoming our students & staff are to new students.  I want them to see how our school community cares for one another and values the teaching and learning that transpires throughout the building on a daily basis.  Mindset:  Be proud of the school community in which you spend most of your waking hours and deliver your message with passion, purpose and with a humbled spirit.
  4. Spend time getting to know the student – I will often spend the first 15-20 minutes talking to potential new students one on one in my office before a tour in order to learn as much as I can about their talents, strengths and areas of interest.  Two questions I ask new students are, “What part of school do you value most and why?” and “How do you want to be remembered when you leave your high school?”  Mindset:  Want to show students that this is an environment of great expectations that will challenge their inner core and expect them to leave a positive footprint on their school community long after graduation.
  5. Always be yourself – Be sure when giving a tour you conduct yourself in the same manner you would if you were walking the building on a normal day.  In other words, be you.  This is not the time to try and portray a side of you that is not genuine.  By doing so, you will quickly lose the trust of your new family and send the wrong message to your current students and staff. Mindset:  Rather than be disingenuous, use these opportunities to recognize areas for potential growth in your own leadership style and then establish a plan to make a needed change.
  6. Encourage them to visit other schools – Believe it or not, I always encourage new families to visit the surrounding school districts. I emphasize to new parents that there are many good schools in our area to choose from and that it is important for them to contact other schools to schedule visits.  Honestly, I tell them they need to walk into different schools and determine for themselves, which school community “feels right.”  I want a new student (and their parents) to feel good about his/her choice in a new school knowing full well I may lose them, but in the long run it is the best measure of success.  If they do not select us, then it wasn’t the right fit.  Mindset:  I believe the most critical factor in determining the success of any student is the culture and climate of a school.  My attitude going into any meeting with a new family has to be one of quiet confidence and trust that we have cultivated the right culture for kids to be successful and that new families will feel that this is a special place.
  7. Let them ask questions of the students and staff – I always encourage our new families to ask students and staff questions as we tour.  In fact, I will often purposefully distance myself so our students and staff can have an open and honest discussion with new families free from my presence.  In addition, I tell families before we begin the tour that they are welcome to enter any classroom they choose and that our students and staff do not know they will be visiting. Mindset:   I never want to give the impression that I am somehow trying to influence the responses or comments from my students and staff.  I want them to know that what they see is what they get; this is who we are every day.
  8. Show new families where to find your school/district data – At the conclusion of the tour, I always return to the main office to give the student and family time to digest what they have just observed and to provide an opportunity for any follow up questions.  This is also the time I provide families our school profile data information or walk them through on how to access the information from our district/building website.  Mindset:  I want to be transparent with our school data, although I find most families have already accessed it long before ever setting up a visit.
  9. Share your personal information with them – Parents always appreciate when I hand them a business card and take time to inscribe my personal cell phone number on the card and encourage them to contact me day, night or weekend.  I share with them that I recognize that choosing a school can be very stressful on not only their student, but the entire family as well. Mindset:  I want parents to know I care about them and their student and am accessible 24/7 should a need arise sooner than later.  The message I want to send is that being a school principal is not a job, but my life.
  10. Invite them to a school function – One of most positive steps we take to encourage new families to select our school is to invite them to attend an evening event as our special guest.  This is especially true if the event they attend is an event in which the student has a personal interest. This is one area that we added on as part of our practice this year after seeing tremendous results of families selecting our school after attending one of our events.  Giving a new student an opportunity to see and feel what it would be like to be part of a club, group, or team is a powerful way to let them experience the pride and spirit of our school community. Mindset:  Allows students and families to see up front the value we place on our co-curricular activities. We want our students to not only feel connected, but be connected beyond the bell schedule.

I approach every student/family visit with the intention of giving of my time and more importantly, of myself.  I have tremendously high expectations of myself and of my staff when it comes to cultivating a culture that places a significant value on giving of our time to others in a positive and caring way. My mindset is simple; in the words of my father, we as a school community will get out of it what we put into it.

As leaders, we are responsible for raising the bar to exceptionally high levels when it comes to how we want both new and existing families to feel about their school community.  I am honored to be a part of this wonderful community we call Bettendorf and I am extremely proud because I know that although I have invested my life in our school community, I am just a guest like everyone else until the next principal comes along.

So I challenge you to reflect…do your new families get what they expect?

Or do they walk out of your school receiving so much more than they ever expected?

This entry is a cross-post from Jimmy Casas‘s blog. (@casas_jimmy) Principal of Bettendorf High School, will present Building Community Through Social Media on Friday, February 7, 2014 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas.  For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.

A Schoolhouse for Today’s Learners

Guest post by Dwight Carter:

In most cases, one of the last places affected by school reform is the schoolhouse itself. It’s expensive to completely redesign an entire school, and we are used to school looking a certain way: long corridors, square classrooms, rows of lockers, trophy cases lining the walls of the lobby, a large bland cafeteria, narrow stairways, and little natural light.

Today’s learners–Millennials and the “iGeneration”–need a new kind of school. They are wired differently than any generation that has come before them, due in part to the integration of technology in everyday life. Millennials include those born between 1977 and 1998 or by some definitions 1982 to 2000.

According to The Learning Café and American Demographics, today’s generation of students are creative and collaborative by nature; they don’t know life without connectivity; they multitask; they want positive relationships with their teacher, administrator, or boss; they want things personalized to their interests; and they want to rewrite the rules. They see institutions as irrelevant, and schools are often seen as institutions to them. Understandably, traditional school design hinders how today’s learner want to interact and engage in school.

At Gahanna Lincoln High School, we were facing a challenge: With 2400 students, we were at capacity and had the opportunity to do something creative to provide more space and, at the same time, meet the needs of today’s learner.

With the vision of former Superintendents Gregg Morris and Mark White, along with a team of curriculum coordinators, business directors, and highly qualified teachers, we built Clark Hall. Clark Hall is a 51,000-square-foot, three-story work of art. It doesn’t resemble a typical American high school at all; rather it’s more like an innovative office building. The goal was to create an open, modern, bright space that evokes creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, choice and fun. It houses fourteen classrooms, each with its own conference room, enterprise strength connectivity, natural light, laptops for every student, and collaborative spaces in hallways so students are able to use the entire space for learning.

We traded in the traditional rows of desks and chairs for soft, brightly colored modular furniture, some exercise balls, a few rocking chairs, and a couple of Adirondack chairs. We created two large commons areas that can be used for just about anything we want: smaller classroom space or large presentation space. A few of the classrooms have colorful carpet squares that make up a soft seating area of the sort you might find in a modern coffee house or redesigned university student union. We abandoned the “bargain-basement beige” paint for splashes of primary colors and bright white. We worked with the architects to include as much natural light as possible to evoke energy and creativity.

With flexibility built into the daily schedule, teachers have more time to interact with students on an individual basis, students feel more relaxed and are more compelled to engage in the learning process, and collaboration among students is the norm. Additionally, collaboration among teachers of different content areas has become a natural part of the day because they are not separated by department. We have an art teacher next to AP psychology and personal finance teachers, for example.

Because today’s learners like and need structure, we work with them at the beginning of each school year to develop expectations for the space; as a result, we have few discipline problems. Teachers no longer hover over students to make sure they are on task. Students appreciate the freedom and understand this freedom is a byproduct of responsible behavior.

Clark Hall has inspired change on our main campus as well. One of the main hubs of most schools and universities is the library. We wanted our library to have the same feel as Clark Hall, so our Librarian, Ann Gleek, dreamt big and made some significant improvements. Changes like removing some of the book shelves, painting the walls, and removing some of the traditional furniture have made for a more social, collaborative and inviting environment for students. There is still a quiet room for study, but the largest part of the space is open and collaborative.

Educational reform must include reforming or transforming the physical learning environment. According to Daniel Pink, design is one of the elements of the right brain that we must tap into. We have to look differently at the space we have now and spruce things up… a lot… for the sake of learning.

I will discuss this in more detail as well as its impact on student learning during my presentation at Ignite 2014!

Be great,
Dwight

Dwight Carter (@Dwight_Carter) is principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio. Dwight was named an NASSP Digital Principal in 2013. He will be presenting Digitally Creative Learning Environments on Friday, February 7 at Ignite ’14 in Dallas. For more information and to register visit www.nasspconference.org.

Sources:

  • http://apps.americanbar.org/lpm/lpt/articles/mgt08044.html
  • http://fluency21.com/blog/

AP Viewpoint: IT CAN BE DONE!

Guest post by Matthew Willis:

William C. Hinkley High School in Aurora, CO is using many of the “Breaking Ranks” frameworks to crush the high-school-to-prison pipeline and diminish systemic poverty in our community.

Creating hope, opportunity, and addressing a traditional disciplinary process simultaneously is a best practice for meeting these goals and transforming underperforming schools. The assistant principal plays a vital role in transforming school culture and its system of discipline.

Crushing the high-school-to-prison pipeline takes a commitment to creating a culture of care through restorative justice, circles, conferences, and other relational practices. We must commit to working collaboratively and intentionally to repair every breech in relationships. Unbelievably, Hinkley high school had over 260 physical aggression referrals (category C) and over 400 minor infractions like disobedience, defiance, and profanity referrals (category B) in 2008. As a result of our work with many community stakeholders, including the Aurora Police Department and Dr. Tom Cavanagh from Colorado State University, we are transforming Hinkley high school and working to create equitable practices in every classroom. As is evident from the graph below, our work to create a positive school culture that is safe and welcoming for all is coming to life. PBS NewsHour will be joining Dr. Tom Cavanaugh and the staff and students of Hinkley High School for a day in January to discover and share many of our best practices.

Just 10 days before the 2012-13 school year began, a theater shooting killed and wounded many people in the Aurora community. Having restorative justice, relationships with our students and community, and a culture of care provided a mechanism for us to deal with this devastation.

I look forward to the Ignite ’14 conference in Dallas and the opportunity to share data, best practices, and stories from William C. Hinkley High School.

Matthew Willis is the 2013 NASSP/Virco National Assistant Principal of the Year. Matthew will present the Assistant Principals Viewpoint on Saturday, February 8 at Ignite ’14. For more information and to register, visit www.nasspconference.org.

Restorative Practices: An Answer to Many School Challenges

Guest post by Steven Korr:

Educators face so many challenges today. The pressure to foster student achievement at higher and higher levels is enormous. At the same time, educators find that students don’t seem to be socially and academically prepared to excel. Students often don’t know how to work successfully in groups. Many lack a sense of caring about others that can result in hurtful and even violent behavior.

The upshot is that we’re all seeing more disrespect and disruptions in classrooms. Many teachers wonder, “How can I teach when the problems are so great?” After all, learning requires risk-taking. But if students don’t feel safe, how can they be expected to take necessary risks?

Clearly, these conditions have a detrimental impact on learning. Still, when educators go into the classroom they are expected to teach. And students, for all their challenges, need them to do just that.

The old answers for handling these problems are failing. The current trend across the country is to repeal zero tolerance policies. The data shows that those policies weren’t working anyway. But if we can’t just throw kids out of the classroom or school when they disrupt learning, what are we going to do? Our answer is to institute “restorative practices.”

At the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), a graduate school based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, we start from the fundamental premise that people are happier, more cooperative, more productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with them, rather than to them or for them.

In a school building, this means that we have to take a look at how we can build connections and strengthen relationships between everybody in the school – teachers, students, administrators, staff, and even secretaries, bus drivers, hall monitors and cafeteria workers.

This doesn’t mean instituting yet another new program that’s going to be forgotten in a few years’ time. Instead, restorative practices provide a framework for changing the thinking and behavior of those in authority, to consistently do the things that good educators and leaders have always done—thereby changing the way everyone in the school building relates to one another.

Restorative practices provide ways to address student behavior when things go wrong. More importantly, they improve the learning environment so that kids feel safe and effective learning can happen.

Steve Korr is a trainer and consultant for the International Institute for Restorative Practices (iirp.edu). He was a counselor and principal at an alternative school for at-risk youth for more than a decade. He has helped schools across the country, both urban and rural, implement successful restorative practices programs to improve school climate and positively impact learning. He will be presenting a breakout session at Ignite ’14 on Saturday, Feb. 8th from 8AM to 9:15AM.

To learn more about restorative practices and whole-school change, visit SaferSanerSchools.org. The article “What Is Restorative Practices?” by IIRP Founder and President Ted Wachtel also provides an excellent introduction to the topic.

Creating a School Culture Focused on High Engagement and Shared Literacy

Guest post by Kasey Teske:

Participants of Ignite ’14,

I’m so excited to be a part of the rich learning experience that will take place before, during and after this conference. I will be presenting about the importance of creating a school culture focused on high engagement and shared literacy. As we build the capacity of teachers to engage students in relevant content with rigorous literacy aligned to anchor standards, how can we measure if the intended shifts of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are happening across curricula over time? Is it possible to measure trends in student engagement, literacy opportunities, higher-order thinking and technology use over time?

The answer is yes! As part of my presentation, I will share a walkthrough strategy that allows you to take a snapshot of a different period of your school day each week and measure instructional shifts over time. With the help of this strategy, you will be able to answer the question, Are the CCSS making a difference throughout my school? as well as provide collective and individual feedback to your teachers.

The presentation will also include other ideas related to the importance of observing teachers frequently with feedback and eliciting reflective conversations regarding instructional expectations. One idea is to regularly schedule peer observations. Teachers get the chance to observe other teachers who are willing to showcase their instructional bright spots. Best of all, teachers get a chance to glean ideas in the context of authentic instruction.

Another idea is to use your evaluation instrument to periodically review instructional goals and provide formative feedback throughout the year. The process provides more opportunity for teachers to reflect, engage in instructional conversations with administrators, and plan for improvements so that they can shine on the summative evaluation. More importantly, whether a school observes teachers and provides frequent and meaningful feedback is a significant factor in distinguishing high-performing schools from low-performing schools.

Kasey Teske will be presenting Creating a School Culture Focused on High Engagement and Shared Literacy on Saturday, February 8th at Ignite ’14.  For more and to register, visit www.nasspconference.org.

Upcoming Webcast: Understanding Mindsets: An Interview with Carol Dweck

In her book Mindset, author and researcher Carol Dweck suggests that “we are what we think,” an idea with very real implications for the work of school leaders. As we define and explore the impact of working from “fixed” or “growth” mindsets in our schools, we learn that our mindsets have powerful implications for principal leadership, teacher expectations and practice, school culture, and ultimately, the success of the students we serve.

Join NASSP Professional Development Specialist and former principal Janice Ollarvia and Carol Dweck as they dive deeper into Mindset. Also featured in this program will be Erik Burmeister, California Middle Level Principal of the Year and finalist for MetLife/NASSP National Principal of the Year, who will bring the practitioner’s perspective to the conversation.

During this live, interactive event, you can address questions directly to Carol, chat with other webcast attendees, and expand the conversation on Twitter using the #mindsetchat hashtag. All participants receive a certificate of participation following the webcast.

Title: Understanding Mindsets: An Interview with Carol Dweck
Date: Thursday, January 9, 2013
Time: 3:00–4:00 p.m. ET

Register now!

School Showcase Feature: Woodbridge Middle School

Creating sustainable, quality education programming is a driving force for all public schools. We all look deeply and rationally at our students, striving to identify their needs. However, with all that is before us, it can seem like an overwhelming task. Here at Woodbridge Middle, we spent some time researching, analyzing, and planning such a program that would benefit students regardless of their achievement level or demographic. With this in mind, we established an opt-in Same Gender Program based on the research of Dr. Leonard Sax.

Currently fifty percent of the students at our public, coed middle school receive their instruction in language arts, math, science, and social studies in an all-boy or all-girl setting. We have multiple learning community structures in place which extend beyond simply building time in the master schedule so that teams and departments can meet. Our structures provide opportunities for teachers to constantly examine how we do business, what impact we have on students, and what we need to consider for improvement as we move forward. Our goal is to continuously search for better ways to meet the academic, emotional, developmental, and social needs of our students. Our Same Gender Program is one example of how we have worked together to meet the needs of our students.

The all-boy program’s objective is to establish an environment in which middle school boys can learn best. Through research and student observations, we have developed an active, kinesthetic-learning environment where boys can succeed. An all-boys lesson modifies the topics, activities, and instructional delivery to increase student engagement. Within the all-boys program, we have developed a House System where students participate in healthy competition in both academics and extra-curricular activities. The House System also serves as our behavior management tool, in which students take ownership of their own behaviors and adjust their social tendencies. At the conclusion of our program, we hope to develop young men with good character and the motivation to succeed.

Similarly, we have developed an all-girls program with the aim of building leadership, integrity, and self-awareness. By excluding the distraction of gender stereotypes and building upon gender differences, we have, as Dr. Sax put it, “got beyond pink and blue.” We see girls as individuals and understand that they do not need to be trapped by certain feminine stereotypes, such as “girls are not good at math and science.” Instead, we create opportunities that allow them to succeed by modifying their environment. For instance, we expose students to female scientists, mathematicians, and authors in the hopes of providing examples of greatness. We also utilize texts with strong girls as major characters who have attributes with which they can identify.

Additionally, we spend a great deal of time providing a safe place where girls can express themselves without the fear of failure or competition. As reporter Sara Rimer of The New York Times explained, “being an amazing girl often doesn’t feel like enough these days when you’re competing with all the other amazing girls.” Our teams seek to reduce the anxiety many girls experience by citing mantras such as Failure Leads to Success, Be Flexible, and Practice Balance. These keys of excellence help the girls release the deep-seated feelings of insecurity many of them have experienced throughout their academic and social careers. It also gives them permission to take risks where they may not historically have done so.

The middle school experience can be isolating and overwhelming for many students.  By understanding how boys and girls learn differently, our school has created a welcoming place where All are Respected  and Achievement is Expected regardless of gender, demographics, and other characteristics. While we have by no means perfected the model, we are confident in its effectiveness and continue to build upon our successes.

Woodbridge Middle School will be one of 22 schools featured at the Breaking RanksSchool Showcase at Ignite 2014. The Woodbridge team will be presenting A Same Gender Option: Boys and Girls are Different! on Thursday, February 6th. For more on Tefft Middle School, check out the article published in the May 2012 issue of Principal Leadership.

School Showcase Feature: Bloomfield High School

Guest post by Chris Jennings:

What happens when you create an opportunity for students to choose where they will go and what they will do during the school day? Chaos? Anarchy? At Bloomfield High School in New Jersey, we discovered that students may surprise you.

During the 2011-12 school year, a group of students and administrators met throughout the year to discuss how we could work within the confines of our existing seven-period day to create more opportunities for students to have independent time for clubs, extra help, and teacher meetings. When I opened the discussion to the staff, one of our teachers recommended we take a look at Princeton High School’s “Wednesday” schedule. We did, and we adopted a similar schedule for the 12-13 school year. We have not looked back.

The basic premise is this: Each Wednesday, we shorten each period by eight minutes to allow for an activity period that runs during normal school hours – in our case, from 1:40-2:35. During this period, every school employee is unencumbered and available for students. Teachers and counselors can meet with students individually, in small groups, or as a whole class. Tests are retaken or made up, labs are completed, homework is done, and questions are answered.

You get the picture – but the catch is that at 1:40 school is dismissed, and students can choose whether or not they participate in the activity period. This is the part that made the grown-ups nervous. What if they all choose to leave? It took a leap of faith, but a year and a half later we consistently have 1,000 students choosing to stay in school and work with teachers. We relax school rules about hats, iPods, and cell phones during this period, and students are allowed stay for just ten minutes or beyond the duration of the period. We trust students to make decisions that are in their best interest, and they genuinely appreciate having the freedom. In my seven years as principal at BHS, I have not been involved in another decision that has been so universally accepted by students, teachers, and parents. The Wednesday Activity Period has become an important component of our approach to differentiate school for our students.

Chris Jennings is the principal of Bloomfield High School. Bloomfield High School will be one of 22 schools featured at the Breaking Ranks School Showcase at Ignite 2014. The Bloomfield team will be presenting Transforming a Title I High School through Culture, Collaboration, and Curriculum on Thursday, February 6th.  For more on Bloomfield High School, check out the article published in the May 2012 issue of Principal Leadership.

RSVP: A student’s perspective

Guest post by James Gomez, a student at Bettendorf High School, Iowa:

The first time I was told about the basic concept of RSVP, I was intrigued and fascinated by it. A student body directly bringing about change within their school is a unique concept. Though at that time I was a few years too young to be a part of this organization, I knew it was something that I wanted to join. RSVP is a student-led organization within a school that gives a voice to the student body and helps to build leadership capacity within students.

What is RSVP?
RSVP, created by the National Association of Student Councils in 2006, empowers the student body to identify issues within their school. These concerns and ideas are then taken to principals and school administrators, who work together with students to address them. This line of communication from student to administration helps the student body feel confident that their voices are being heard and valued.

A student-led leadership team and student facilitators are essential parts of an RSVP program. Comprised of students who are willing to take leadership roles, the RSVP leadership team represents the student body and helps to organize the RSVP student facilitators. The leadership team trains facilitators to run student summits in order hear what students like about their school and what could be changed within it.

When the facilitators have gathered this information, the leadership team picks out the top concerns from the first summit and has the facilitators return to the student body for a second summit to ask students for their ideas for solutions. To make changes within the school, the leadership team meets with the principal to discuss what steps can be taken to address the concerns of the student body. More student summits can be held to gather student reaction or to call students to action to help make the change a reality.

RSVP’s Impact
My experience with RSVP began as a freshman in high school. I signed up with a high level of enthusiasm for the concept of RSVP, but I did not know what to expect out of the program. During facilitator training, the leadership team showed the trainees some of the changes that had been brought about through RSVP.  Changes to various school facilities, events, and policies were all included in that list. It was then that I fully realized what kind of potential RSVP had within a school.

After my freshman facilitator training, I was approached by the RSVP teacher advisor and asked if I would like to join the leadership team. The members of the leadership team saw that I had shown energy and leadership potential during the training. I was thrilled to take a more involved role in a program with which I was already impressed.

During my freshman year, I facilitated summits, participated in leadership team meetings and activities, and helped inform other schools about RSVP. Additionally, I helped bring about a major policy change concerning cell phone use at my school. This large shift in policy allowed me to see just how much RSVP empowers the student body’s voice to make substantial changes.

During my sophomore year, I attended a Student Council State conference with RSVP to present the RSVP program to students and educators from around the state. The interest and enthusiasm that people showed over our presentations helped me see how beneficial it can be to share RSVP with other schools. Additionally, during my second year on the leadership team, I took the lead of a subcommittee of the leadership team that dealt with all lunchroom-related concerns brought to light during summits. Taking this leadership role meant stepping out of my comfort zone to work independently to take on problems that the student body had voiced through RSVP.

Since first joining RSVP, my leadership and teamwork skills have grown exponentially. Working with peers on the leadership team as well as with facilitators has made me a more confident speaker and communicator. I believe that RSVP is beneficial not only for schools as institutions, but also for the students involved in it. For these reasons, RSVP has been an important part of my school and an important program for me personally.

To me, RSVP is empowerment of students to create the change that they want to see in their own school. RSVP allows many students to get involved and make a positive difference in their school environment. Students and administrators around the country can benefit from RSVP and from the differences that it makes within their schools.

James Gomez is currently a junior and Lead Team member of RSVP at Bettendorf High School in Iowa.  Jimmy Casas (@casas_jimmy), principal of Bettendorf High School, will speak about RSVP’s impact on students like Gomez at Ignite ’14 an Extended Learning Lab on Saturday, February 8, 2014.