Richmond Hill High School (RHHS) is a public school in southern Georgia with about 2,350 students. RHHS sits in the middle of Richmond Hill, a city with about 20,000 residents, and the success and achievement of Bryan County Schools draw residents to the area. Twenty-five percent of students who go to RHHS qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, 36 percent are minorities, and 10 percent are served through special education. We have about 140 teachers, and a wide variety of academic course offerings and athletics are popular: RHHS offers 18 of the 19 Georgia High School Association-​sanctioned athletic and extracurricular programs. We believe in, plan for, and expect students to lead.

All schools have student sections at athletic competitions that cheer and bring a high level of school spirit. Our Wildcat students lend their spirit at football, volleyball, basketball, and soccer games. Each year, it seems as though the student section increases—not just in number of students but also in number of events that they attend as a group.

We have learned to highlight athletics to build community. With higher attendance at athletic events comes higher ticket sales, which bring a larger fund balance. More funds mean that additional support is made available for supplies and equipment, travel, and professional learning. Increased student involvement in athletics brings better attendance and engagement at school, and the resulting school culture is one that values success collectively in all areas of the school and community.

Athletics and Leadership

This past summer, RHHS organized an inaugural student athlete leadership day retreat, giving student athletes an opportunity to use and improve their leadership skills. Additionally, on Fridays student athletes and band members report to our elementary schools in the mornings, greeting students at the car and bus lines and helping them to their classes. The younger students love this, and our students, as juniors and seniors, embrace this leadership opportunity as a chance to make a positive impact on future Wildcats.

This spring, we implemented Service Saturdays. Each Saturday a student group—a club or an athletic team or program—signs up to lead community service at RHHS. Athletic teams volunteer outside of their season as a way to build teamwork and leadership. Leadership is an expectation at RHHS, not an option, and we intentionally and repeatedly work to offer students leadership roles and opportunities.

At RHHS, we encourage exposure to other schools’ programs. Athletics coaches are encouraged to seek out strong competition and play up a level, even if it means additional travel and expense. Our athletics booster clubs often support this financially, and our school athletics funds are used as well. Doing this allows student athletes exposure to high-level programs in other schools, and it gives coaches opportunities to see and talk about what other successful programs are doing. When coaches return with grand ideas for how we can improve, we listen. We can’t always accommodate them immediately, but we very often are able to make at least one positive change to support the program’s quest to get better.

RHHS coaches are expected to participate in professional learning as coaches, just as we expect this from them as teachers. And student programming, academically and athletically, is a regular conversation that we have year-round. We offer multiple sections of weight training as a means of supporting our student athletes, just as we offer AP courses as a means of supporting postsecondary readiness.

How Principals Can Help

The most important role I have as principal is not just hiring but hiring well. Our interview process this past year evolved to include a preinterview component in which candidates submitted a video cover letter and a future résumé. I give credit to the Savannah Bananas, a local farm league baseball organization, for this unique interview strategy. The interview process includes students, and their feedback is some of the best we get each year. My goal is to hire better than me, be inclusive, and staff intentionally. Our football staff has coaches from each of the core content areas, and that has had an amazing impact on our teaming up for success. We expect our teachers to coach and our coaches to teach. Athletic program success includes the efforts of many, and you always have to be on the lookout for folks who can contribute—our athletic programs regularly highlight our athletic trainer, bus drivers, administrative assistants, and custodians as contributing factors to their overall success.

Winning games is fun and important, but it doesn’t happen without the support and involvement of our community. We intentionally plan for wins and consistently involve as many members of the community in this plan as we can. All feeder school faculty and staff members receive a “Paw Pass,” which gets that person into every home athletic event for free. We want to pack the stands for every game, and doing this helps us get folks in bleachers and on sidelines to build the excitement.

Each fall, we host a districtwide tailgate before one of the home football games. Hundreds of Bryan County school employees and their families come out for this event, and each year it has gotten better. We have a local business and a local bank that sell home football game tickets during home game weeks, which lessens ticket lines on Friday nights, and makes the evening more enjoyable. A local bank has teamed up with us, and they wear RHHS “gear” on Fridays in support of RHHS Wildcats. Many of our athletic programs sell spirit signs that can be seen all over our city. The signs, which say “We Support Our Wildcat Cheerleaders” or “Wildcat Supporter,” are tacked up in windows of businesses, displayed on family lawns, and posted in front of local grocery stores. The Wildcat spirit all around Richmond Hill is special, and it goes a long way to build momentum.

Keeping the Focus on Academics

Learning is always the priority, so intentionally protecting and promoting instructional time is a best practice for us. Coaches know and respect that student athletes will not be allowed to leave school any earlier than is absolutely necessary for game travel. The majority of our coaches who would be impacted by early leave for travel have a planning period during the last block, so there is no loss of instructional time if they leave early.

Several of our career and technical education courses have a hand in supporting our athletic programs. For example, our audiovisual broadcast students produce livestream coverage for athletic events. Our graphic arts students create posters and banners for the teams, and they also create the Paw Passes. Students from health care science classes serve as student athletic trainers, and each semester we have one work-based learning student who serves as a student assistant athletic director. Instructional activities that model real-world application are beneficial to the school, but our students are the ones who truly win with these practices in place.

To ensure students maintain their focus on academics and positive school culture, RHHS a few years ago implemented the Obligations List. This list includes students who are tardy, miss detention, owe a fine, or have not returned required paperwork. Students are ineligible for school-​related extracurricular or athletic participation until the obligation is resolved. This has worked well in part because coaches have supported the initiative. Another incentive is Wildcat Pride, hosted twice a year. Students who are recognized in our Wildcat Pride program receive a card that affords them special benefits. Students earn this recognition for coming to school regularly and not being tardy, having exemplary behavior, and passing their classes.

As the saying goes, if you build it, they will come. Once you create a positive shift in momentum, the school culture and student leadership can effectively and successfully sustain it. RHHS embodies the vision for Bryan County Schools: “Excellence and Success in ALL We Do!” I think our school spirit, culture, and success are best described by our school hashtags: #WEareRH, #BuildTheHill, #LeaveNoDoubt, and most recently, #EverythingSchool. Together, we succeed and achieve.

Debi McNeal is the principal of Richmond Hill High School in Richmond Hill, GA.