Defining what it means to have a “successful” high school is quite the challenge, with stakeholders often disagreeing on the approach to take. Some primarily focus on what’s easily quantifiable, such as standardized test schools, national normed tests, attendance data, grade point averages, and discipline data. While these data points are important, they don’t always tell the whole story or clearly define the success of a school.
When I became a high school principal seven years ago, I wanted to take a much broader approach to defining the success of my school and as I begin my first year in a new district and a new school, I am even more confident in what I call the seven A’s of successful high schools. These seven areas provide a framework for high schools to focus on the development of the whole child, which is a concept we cannot overlook in today’s high stress, high demand culture. Following, I’ve outlined each of the seven attributes I consider essential in a successful high school, as well as my rationale for selecting each.
Attendance-Students have to not only be in school, but they have to be on time every period, every day, and be present mentally. Presence matters and is an easily identifiable characteristic of successful schools. Successful schools create an environment where students want to be there and be engaged every day. For example, create multiple ways for a number of students to have their “names in lights”: either read over the announcements, posted in the local newspaper, their pictures on display on digital monitors throughout the building or tweeted out by school officials for demonstrating positive behavior. Find inexpensive and creative ways to establish levels and layers of recognition of progress and achievement. Check out www.jostens.com/renaissance for suggestions and ideas.
Academics– Schools that offer a variety of relevant course offerings not only meet the needs of students, but stretch them to experiment with unfamiliar content, encourage them to learn by doing, and solve local, state, national, and global problems in creative ways. This provides opportunities for teachers to connect with other educators beyond the school walls and model the collaborative learning process. I recommend that a school review its program of studies annually to ensure it’s providing the best opportunities for students. One of the most important things a principal can do is to support the development of new courses that meet the needs of today’s learners. Support teachers who create classes that tap into students’ passions.
Attitude– it’s important that school leaders create a culture that celebrates a positive attitude of students, staff, and parents. One’s attitude is reflected in one’s behavior. One’s attitude, be it negative or positive is contagious. So, creating a culture that eradicates negativity leads to a much more pleasant environment and place where there’s a sense of belonging. For example, at Gahanna Lincoln High School, we established the PRIDE Award, based upon our school motto: Personal Responsibility In Developing Excellence. The PRIDE award allowed staff to give the award to any student who demonstrated the character straits we deemed important. Each month, these students’ names would be scrolled on the morning announcements. Students would go to the lobby to receive a certificate and take a group photo that would be posted on the school’s Facebook and it would also be posted on Twitter. In addition, we invited the students and their parents to a quarterly morning breakfast to be celebrated even more! It was amazing to see so many parents attend a 6:45 AM breakfast with their cameras. I’m certain they went to work and showed off pictures of their “baby!”
Acts of Service– Community service is the norm in successful schools and it doesn’t always have to be large one-time events. Classes or entire grade levels can partner with a number of local organizations, such as the Ronald McDonald House, a local food bank, an animal shelter, the Red Cross, nursery homes, or assist neighbors with home projects. The possibilities are endless as long as there is a plan and desire to help others. This not only creates a sense of belonging for students who have the heart to serve others, but also establishes solid school-community partnerships. For example, students at Gahanna Lincoln would annually have a homeroom competition to provide canned goods to the local food pantry, Gahanna Residents in Need (GRIN). They would collect so much food that they satisfied the needs for many families throughout the winter and spring seasons. This also sparked other organizations to give. Another example is how students at New Albany High School collected coats during the winter months to give to children in need. Simply ask your students what they want to support and why, and help facilitate the action!
I have to share the story of a young woman named, Shayna Fowler, who attends the same church I go to. She just graduated from Pickerington High School Central and she is a difference maker! She has committed herself to a life of service and has helped hundreds of tween and teen girls through a program called, “The Butterfly Project.” She is headed to Kenya this summer to help orphan children. You can learn more about Shayna here.
Athletics-A solid athletic program provides an outlet for many students, creates opportunities for students to connect with each other around a common interest, and the focus they may need to perform academically. In addition, athletics foster positive relationships and increase school pride as the school community rallies around the teams that are in-season, providing weekly opportunities to celebrate students and the school.
The Arts-A robust performing and visual arts programs gives students the opportunity to stretch themselves, fulfill a passion, perform in front of authentic audiences, and immerse themselves into creative outlets. The Arts provide a showcase of the talent that exists within a school and brings the community to the school to see students in action. For example, high schools like Gahanna Lincoln and New Albany have a Fall play and Spring musical each year. Both performances involve a wide range of students, including those who want to perform on stage to those who work behind the scene by being a part of the build or stage crew, working the lighting, or playing music in the pit. Both schools earned an invitation to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland for their outstanding theatre productions. Gahanna Lincoln High School, under the leadership of Cindi Macioce, attended the summers of 2005 and 2013. New Albany High School, under the leadership of Elliot Lemberg, will attend this summer.
Activities– Successful schools have a number of clubs and extra-curricular activities, such as a Gamers Club, Table Tennis, Japanese Anime, a Programming Club, Chess Club, or a Writers Club for students who express themselves through poetry and spoken word. It’s important to honor student voice by allowing them to decide which clubs they want to have at school. The only stipulation is that a school employee has to agree to be the club advisor. Use school announcements, social media, and other web 2.0 tools to share meeting times and dates as well as highlights from club meetings.
Focusing on the 7 A’s will lead to an overall successful school by giving every student the opportunity to thrive. The 7 A’s encompass areas that appeal to all stakeholders, finding a nitch for everyone to be a part of building a positive school culture. As a final step as a building principal, I track data and share results with students, staff, parents, and the community to ensure buy-in and continued school success.