Tuesday, April 21, 2015

High Schools Need True Community And Happy Students by Michael Niehoff

Lately I have been asking school leaders, staff members and education aficionados what I consider to be a universal question now for all high schools:

Since any or all high school students could choose to leave your school tomorrow for on-line or independent study programs, what are you doing to keep them coming to your school today?

 High school students have more choices than ever before and rightly so. They can choose charter programs, independent study, on-line schools, blended programs and more. So again, with all of these choices, are our schools thinking how to keep them coming to their schools today?

This is a somewhat new or even foreign idea to many educators. Historically, students, primarily from our neighborhoods or attendance boundaries, just showed up and made up the enrollment or student body. More recently, with more choice type situations being created, we might have seen situations where students are transferring from one school to another.

Either way, educators have not been in the mindset of competing for students. Indeed, most of us have not connected our positions or jobs with the numbers of students enrolling in our classes, programs or schools. If we taught electives, we might have experienced the practice of recruiting enough students in order to make a class actually exist or not. However, we have not approached students as customers, but rather as passive attendees.

First we need to accept that students now have choices with presumably more on the way. Comprehensive high schools have a strong foundation of tradition. But with each passing year, that will mean less and less to students who are struggling, disconnected, disengaged and dissatisfied. They will continue to gradually opt for other options and more will follow as more options are developed.
So, for those whose jobs are connected to any comprehensive public high school, they will have to consider a couple of things:

1) Our students have choices and we will want to make sure that they realize that their existing school, or school that they are expected to attend in the traditional sense, is a good one for them.
2) Our jobs depend on enrollment. If we lose students, for any of the above reasons, someone’s job is connected and will go away.
3) Since our students have options, they need to be valued as customers who have buying power and will desire a unique, powerful and positive educational experience from their high school program.

Once we make this leap in our thinking, then we can begin to examine our programs. This includes our school culture, unique programs and offerings, our instructional practices and more.
We need to develop and enhance any of the reasons or rationales here. We need to think of our schools as unique communities. It seems that it will be community that will keep students coming. And a lack thereof will send them away. 

In other words, what can your school community offer them that they will not be able to experience or replicate on their own on-line or independent study? Here are some ideas:

1) Students need to have access to professional gear, tools and resources. They have Internet access and other tech resources often at home or elsewhere. But they probably won’t have access to 3-D printers, recording studios, multiple types of media/music production and editing software/devices, commercial kitchens, fitness centers, performance spaces, hand tools, servers, recreational equipment, design centers, makers’ labs, robotics, studio space, ropes courses, gardens, greenhouses, solar farms, etc. You get the idea. Students need professional environments with the best technology and resources.

2) Positive School Culture and Powerful Peer Relationships. As everyone knows, we are social creatures. And high schoolers are social junkies. Sure they can find a social life on-line or in their community, but their most powerful and impactful one can still be at school. However, it needs to be supportive, friendly, safe and available to all. Schools will have to redesign or recreate their systems and practices in order to create school cultures where all students feel safe and part of the school. This means valuing their opinions and individual learning paths, but also focusing on an environment that is truly accepting, positive, friendly, participatory, collaborative and accessible for all. 

3) Powerful Support Systems. I don’t want to use the cliché about the village, but you know it’s true. Students can enjoy a high level or mastery and career readiness if they have access to and programs for mentoring, community partners, project leaders, advisors, coaches and more. Each student needs positive, long-term relationships with adult mentors on and off campus that are invested in their long-term success through project and performance advising.

4) Performance Opportunities. Every student needs a stage or multiple stages in order to share their talents, interests and work. Traditionally, things like athletics and performing arts have been afforded these opportunities. First, these programs need to keep evolving to create more choices and opportunities for all students. Can schools offer more ways for more students to be involved in athletics and performing arts beyond the traditional program? Additionally, and maybe even more importantly, schools need to create public venues – both FTF and digitally – for all students to show and share their individual passions and pursuits. These include, but are not limited to the following: media, art, makers’ programs, robotics, engineering, rock music, song recording/production, writing/publishing/blogging, presentations, entrepreneurship and more.

No offense regarding the common discourse at schools, but much of it is dominated by continuous work on better assessments, policies and the like. School leaders and staffs will have to re-examine what their focus is. It seems safe to say that new assessments and new policies, as a couple of examples, will not address the larger issue of whether students see their comprehensive high school as the best choice for them. 

Will our schools work to create more satisfied and successful customers or continue to chase them away? 

That is today’s big money question.

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