Guest post by Autumn Pino

I will be the first to admit that what I am about to say might be a little controversial, and maybe even a bit daunting for some. What if we built our schools, our schedules, our teaching around the needs of our students? Many of us think that we do, but I would argue that we don’t. I am not saying in schools that we are doing anything wrong, but I often get caught up in wondering, what if we did everything right?

Over the past 14 years, I—like so many other school leaders—have been trying to figure out the best way to serve students, searching for that missing piece or the right initiatives to promote a positive culture and raise student achievement. I embraced Professional Learning Communities, worked on reading initiatives, provided social/emotional/behavioral support, and incorporated coaching and feedback into the school day. Yet somehow, through it all, something was still missing.

Early in my career as a special education teacher, a student once said to me, “Wouldn’t it be great if school was about us?” Feeling challenged and somewhat taken off guard by the statement, I asked for some clarity. She responded, “I don’t mean caring about us, I mean creating a school that is made for students.” It challenged me to think about my own classroom and caused me to strive for my own definition of student-centered teaching and learning, and what school should look like.


Culture begins with each of us. At Roosevelt, we have spent the last several years investing in belief-systems change and the power of what is meant by fostering a growth (versus fixed) mindset. By shifting the mindset of our students and teachers, we continue to shift our culture to a place of collective discovery, shared responsibility, and a commitment to equity and innovation. The time invested has paid dividends and laid the foundation for all that is possible to meet students where they are and challenge them to think about learning as endless capability.

Time, Structure, Space

Over the past several years, our school has been refining a blended/project-based learning program that we are now replicating across the entire building during the 2017–2018 school year. We quickly learned that as we continued to immerse ourselves in personalized practice, we were forced to ask the question: How can we better utilize time, structure, and space to not only meet but maximize the learning opportunities for our students? A short yet profound question related to school. Feeling as though we were in a culture with the right frame of mind, I knew that it was time for me to step up my game and engage staff in a day of intense conversations about our daily schedule (time), team structure, and utilization of space. I know what you might be thinking – we do this all of the time. But for us, it was different this time. It was boundless. It was through the lens of the student. It was powerful.

Students In The Driver Seat

In a recent interview, I was asked what it was that truly allowed for our blended/project-based school to work. My answer is simple. We listened to our students. Our teachers piloting the program were smart enough to incorporate student voice and choice into their daily practice, and we all grew in the process.

I think in schools today, we take for granted the insight, perspective, tenacity, and leadership abilities of our students. Next year, we will be proud to celebrate the grand opening of the Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy, a middle school magnet and the first school of its kind in the state of Iowa. Shared leadership and staff dedication will be important factors in this work, but what moves me most is that students will forever be the cornerstone of this accomplishment.

At Roosevelt, we are certainly not doing everything right—yet—but we are striving to put students at the center of all we do. Sure, there will continue to be failures and missteps along the way, but it all creates opportunities for learning and growing shoulder to shoulder with our students.

What bold steps are we willing to take as leaders to shatter old paradigms on behalf of our students?

Autumn Pino is the principal of Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, IA. She is the 2016 Iowa Principal of the Year. 

About the Author

Autumn Pino is the principal of Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, IA. She is the 2016 Iowa Principal of the Year. 

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