Guest post by Ginni McDonald

Graduation is something every student should have the opportunity to experience. Aside from the indisputable benefits of a high school diploma, the preparations for graduation—the career action plans, the individualized academic plans, and the conferences—assist students in making choices that are right for them and their future. How do we connect with students to ensure they are on the road to graduation? There is no single answer to this question simply because each student is unique.

To help our Northside High School students navigate the road to graduation while addressing each of their unique needs, I knew our school leaders had to look beyond what had been done before. What we hit upon was a conference format that would offer students the freedom to select sessions that fit their interests and needs.

Grit, Goals, and Graduation 

For two years now, we have held a student conference called 3G: Grit, Goals, and Graduation. Our three main objectives for the event are to connect with students, create a deep understanding of what high school graduation means, and plan for postsecondary life. The conference includes breakout sessions on a range of topics related to graduation and postsecondary life, a keynote speaker, and a pep rally.

To organize this conference, a committee of school counselors, teachers, students, parents, and community members forms six months before the event to brainstorm ideas, interests, and themes. We contact possible presenters from the local community and across the state to conduct the breakout sessions. Our classified staff and leadership team work together on the logistics of transforming our campus into a conference center.

Breakout Sessions

Two days before the conference, teachers work with students to help them determine which four breakout sessions are most appropriate to their own goals and needs. The sessions offer students 70 different topics ranging from career options and college exploration to local internships and youth activities. To see the full list of options, please view the conference program.

The breakout sessions are led by small-business owners, college admission counselors, large corporate employers, technical school representatives, and members of multiple branches of the military. Channel 5 News anchor Darren Bob offers a session about careers in broadcast journalism. The Junior ROTC runs a presentation that explores the benefits and challenges of military life. And Leigh Ann Hasley, a local photographer, holds a session called “So You Want to Take More than Just Selfies?” to share the fundamentals of photography.

Conference Impact

The success of the 3G conference is evident through the high levels of student engagement. It is the only time in my career that I do not observe a single tardy student. During the box lunch in the cafeteria, I hear students talking with other students and adults about their favorite sessions and presenters. The conversations and sense of community are apparent.

Students provide feedback about the event and offer suggestions for future conferences. They appreciate having the opportunity to think about their pos-secondary life and explore a range of possibilities after graduation through the breakout sessions. They rave about the keynote speakers, including Freedom Writer Manny Scott, who spoke of the persistence and determination necessary to overcome challenges and barriers on the path to success. They also love the schoolwide pep rally that boosts their school spirit.

Though the graduation conference is a lot of work and involves many moving parts, the opportunity to reach students and provide a relevant learning opportunity is a huge reward. And the conference is just the start. Throughout the rest of the school year, the information, knowledge, and skills gained through the conference help students select courses, discuss postsecondary options, and plan for their lives after high school. Ultimately, our 3G conference helps pave the way for smoother roads to graduation and beyond.

What ways do you connect with students, create a deep understanding for graduating high school, and plan for postsecondary life?

Ginni McDonald, EdD, serves as the principal of Northside High School in Fort Smith, AR. She is completing her 20th year as an educator and was selected as the 2016 Arkansas Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year.



About the Author

Ginni McDonald, EdD, serves as the principal of Northside High School in Fort Smith, AR. She is completing her 20th year as an educator and was selected as the 2016 Arkansas Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year.

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