We have seen more than ever this year that connections are necessary. We need to be purposeful in giving our students the tools to make sure these connections are meaningful and lasting. The Connections program at Lowery Freshman Center is more than “just a class.” With its focus on building supportive relationships, it is making an impact everywhere on campus.

The Allen Independent School District (ISD) Graduate Profile says that Allen High School (AHS) graduates will be effective problem-solvers, responsible and engaged citizens, academically prepared for future pursuits, and effective communicators. Research from The Wallace Foundation and others confirms that principals are essential in realizing this vision of academic success, and Lowery Freshman Center has a huge role in continuing this work with all Allen ISD students. After recognizing the need to better support students in achieving the pillars of the profile, address the emotional wellness of our students, and promote a sense of community and collaboration, we developed the Connections program.  

Connections: What Is It, and Why Do We Need It?

Connections is:

  • An intentional academic break built into the middle of the school day 
  • Designed to establish social-emotional relationships between students and teachers 
  • Intended to develop a focus on the whole child 

Three Developmental Components:

  • Student to teacher relationships
  • Student to student relationships
  • Freshman to WINGS (We Inspire the Next Generation to Soar) mentor relationships

Purposeful Relationships Aim to:

  • Express care
  • Challenge growth
  • Build support
  • Expand possibilities
  • Foster student empowerment

Through the Connections program, all students become effective and engaged citizens—furthering the realization of the graduate profile.  

More Than “Just a Class”

The Connections curriculum is designed to allow the teacher to model the ability to connect with others so that students know how to make those connections with not only peers, but also adults. We ask teachers to assume the role of activity facilitator and mentor rather than a classroom teacher, and we have made a conscious effort to ensure that the students do not have an academic tie to their Connections teacher. This is intentional so that the teacher can create a positive relationship based on support and improvement in order to encourage the student’s growth. 

This teacher-student connection allows for at least one positive and productive relationship that is not only tied to each student’s academic success, but also their emotional success. Students can expect to participate in activities that build trust, cooperation, collaboration, and teamwork. There are also academic support days, conversations, and presentations on relevant issues, character building aligned with a specific monthly character trait, and basic life skills that are taught each week.

WINGS—Peer Support in Action!

The WINGS program was designed specifically to align with the Connections program in order for AHS students to connect directly with students at Lowery and help prepare them for the AHS main campus. The goal is to ease concerns and provide students a place to ask questions they may not otherwise have the opportunity to ask. The WINGS students remain with the same Connections class for the entire year. 

Placing the WINGS with the same class throughout the year allows the mentors to develop a relationship with their Connections class, adding to the support during this transitional year. The WINGS students are able to play games, run activities, and facilitate conversations our freshman students are more likely to relate to because they are peers and the information seems more relevant to them. 

Layers of Support

This dynamic creates layers of support for freshmen students. They have their teacher, who is there to develop a supportive relationship. They have the other students in class, which creates a community of freshmen who are better able to support one another, and they have the two to three WINGS students they see every week.  

Our goal is to create a safe space that is supportive and encouraging—a place where every student feels valued. In addition, this safe place allows students to be vulnerable with one another and share their honest thoughts and feelings with others that may be going through similar difficulties. These intentional combinations demonstrate that when all are working in an orchestrated way, a focus on social-emotional learning, the needs of each student, and relationships all work together to build a unique community within our school.  

The Impact

Connections, which has only been in place for a few years, has already made a lasting impact through the sense of community it has created on the Lowery campus. Students reported that they valued the relationships they formed not only with their peers, but also with the Connections teacher. They enjoyed learning more about the teacher on a human level, and appreciated the opportunity to engage in conversations and activities relevant to their lives.

Our students need connections, but they also need our help to facilitate them. When I allowed others that shared my vision for this program to step in and lead collaboratively, I had no idea that the unintended consequences would be so numerous and amazing.

About the Author

Jill Stafford is principal of the Lowery Freshman Center in Allen, TX, the place where more than 1,800 freshman “begin soaring together” as Allen Eagles each year. She has been in education 30 years, 19 of them as an administrator serving schools in both Allen and Lubbock, TX. She has been in her current role for nine years. Stafford is the 2020 Texas High School Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@jill325).

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