As students, teachers, families and communities prepare for the start of the new school year, “Back to School” has a special meaning. There’s reason for celebration as students are eager to see friends and meet their teachers. It’s also back to school, after a period of school disruption and for some students there’s trepidation because they haven’t been in a classroom since 2019-2020 and Delta variant transmissions are on the rise. As we collectively work to mitigate unfinished learning and keep students safe and healthy in a pandemic, we are seeking ways to ignite positive school connections. The Center for High School Success (CHSS) is committed to sharing lessons learned and evidenced-based approaches to accelerate student engagement and support social emotional learning. Today, we are starting a blog series to highlight ideas that are showing promise in strengthening student and community engagement. To get us started, I’m happy to share an innovative approach implemented by one of our Colorado Center for High School Success partners, South High School in Pueblo.
“Every child deserves a champion-an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” - Rita Pierson
In her viral Ted Talk video, Rita Pierson extolls the values and importance of human connection. She reminds us of what brain science and research tells us and what we instinctively know - we are wired to make connections. South High School actualized this knowing by “championing” connections one ninth grader at a time during the 2020-21 school year.
The South High Colts prioritized building meaningful relationships with students through finding "Champions" for their ninth-grade class. The mission of the program was to pair each 9th grader with a staff member or volunteer in the building who would check their grades with them twice a month, build relationships with them even in a virtual environment, and advocate for them in times of need.
The Champions program was initiated by Student Engagement Coordinator, Danielle Gibson, who also leads the school’s ninth grade success team. Support from Assistant Principal Andree Bybee was key to getting the program off the ground. In talking about the program, AP Bybee notes, “Every Freshman who enters Pueblo South High School deserves to have more than one adult who is checking on them, guiding them, making sense of credit requirements, and being a familiar face. Someone who is their Champion.”
South’s Champions program got underway during second semester and by the end of the year all ninth graders had a champion. Ninth grade success team member and teacher, Deneen Ruiz served as a champion for several students. She maintained regular check-ins and got her 9th graders involved in extracurricular activities. Many office staff, lunch staff, teachers, paras, school counselors and a special volunteer, Sandy Holman, gave of their time to serve as a champion. (We will learn more about Ms. Holman in an upcoming blog). To make sure every 9th grader had a champion, Ms. Gibson, AP Bybee, and community advocate Rena Finn tagged teamed to support 9th graders who were chronically absent.
A “Colture” Mindset
Principal, Michael Kovac, explains, “At South High School we are deliberate in trying to create a positive Colture (our school version of culture) for our students. Championing students is a way to connect our staff with individual students to create a positive connection. We want students to know that we care about them as a student and person, and that they have a support system of adults who want the best for them.” Anecdotally the program was successful in helping ninth graders to better understand what is expected of them in high school, know where to go to ask for help, and feel welcomed into the school’s "Colture”. Go South High Colts!
Next in the series, we will meet community volunteer, Sandy Holman. She exemplifies the meaning of a caring adult.
Resources on positive youth connections and social emotional learning:
Reopening After Covid: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Supports for Schools, Newly released by the Center for High School Success
Check and Connect, evidenced-based program featured in What Works Clearinghouse
Search Institute - Developmental Asset Framework