Reclaiming the urban American high school
Wellness means something different to each person. It could involve daily exercise, meditation, a well-balanced diet, or time spent on a favorite hobby. However one gets there, wellness is ultimately about a feeling as much as it is a state of mind. In our school, wellness is achieved in a unique way through inclusivity, empowerment, and individual responsibility. Creating an environment where students and teachers feel like included, active participants has been key to our success.
Hunters Lane High School is an urban high school that serves 1,350 students in grades 9–12 within the Metropolitan Nashville Public School system. Thirteen years ago, when a new executive principal was appointed, the school was classified as being in “corrective action” and was headed toward a state takeover due to low student achievement. When charged with turnaround work, school leaders cannot implement one initiative at a time and wait to see if it will change the trajectory; instead, they must implement multiple interventions simultaneously, and it can be difficult to credit which change made the difference for the school. We are in the unique position of using hindsight to help tell the story of the successful turnaround that began with having consistent leadership since 2008.
While many specific interventions have been put in place over the years, they have shared the common goal of increasing our version of wellness. This emphasis on student and staff wellness as an overarching priority has been an integral part of a philosophical shift that transformed our school from a place where discussions focused on what could not be done to a place where we were able to envision what a school could be—and take steps to turn that vision into our reality.
In 2008, it was not uncommon for school to be something that was done to students rather than done in partnership with students. Students had little voice, and there was an emphasis on controlling kids more than engaging them. In the summer of 2008, project teams convened about a wide variety of topics including student incentives, student discipline, and morale, and it was clear that students felt that there were not many fun things in place for them because their misbehavior wouldn’t allow it. Teachers agreed with the student sentiment and were quick to share incidents of poor behavior as a rationale to defend why those things could not happen at our school. This deficit mindset about what kids “could not” do because of an incident or a story—some of which we were unable even to confirm—contributed to a genuine lack of commitment to providing students an enjoyable high school experience. What students wanted was the fun things other schools had like pep rallies, dances, field trips, and events that bolstered school spirit. The principal made a commitment in those summer project teams to bring those things back to Hunters Lane, so students could have those experiences they deserve and cultivate those lifelong high school memories that most of us have.
The first pep rally the school had held in many years was planned for the day of the first home football game—a tradition that has continued ever since. Teachers cautioned the principal against having the pep rally because fights would break out. The local police came to the school and tried to convince the principal not to have the pep rally. Even students were skeptical if it could be successful because of the urban myths about what would happen when the entire student body gathered in one space. The principal listened to the warnings but recognized that the only way to put this school on a different path was to stop doing the things that had made corrective action necessary. We had to trust our students. This was the first step toward wellness for them. The pep rally happened without incident, and the students were so worried they would mess it up that the staff had to model that it was acceptable to cheer and yell in this setting because students did not trust themselves.
It is often said that students will rise to whatever level we expect of them, and we’ve found this to be true at Hunters Lane High School. This does not mean that our school is a perfect place where no conduct issues occur. Incidents happen that violate our standards; however, long gone are the days where incidents are held up as an example for us to not provide a comprehensive school adventure, which includes all the fun things kids want and a rigorous academic experience.
A key part of our philosophy about wellness is tied to individual responsibility. We do not permit group punishments at our school. There is no cancellation of events because of the poor behavior choice of a student. The student who is in trouble may not get to participate, but the event goes on. Teachers do not hold classes after the bell, for example, as a power play against a student for misbehavior during class. Students who err have consequences assigned to them; for everyone else, the beat goes on. That is fair. That promotes wellness.
We also had to rethink the way our school building felt and question if it showed students that they were in a place where they belonged. For instance, we repainted our school hallways in bright colors that welcome all and instituted a “no negative signage” policy. At our school, there are no signs that say, “don’t,” “stop,” or “students not permitted.” We want our students to feel welcome. We simply flipped the script and instead of posting, “No Standing,” our walls now say, “Please Keep Walking.” A small distinction, but an important one if a school is going to be committed to student wellness.
The most compelling lesson about staff wellness that we have learned over the past 13 years at Hunters Lane High School is that people support what they help create. Part of what makes a staff healthy is an understanding and commitment to a vision that aligns with their own personal philosophy coupled with a belief that they have meaningful and valued contributions to make toward the culture of the school and the success of their students. This does not mean that our school runs like a democracy where the adults agree on everything. Some guidance comes from the leadership, whether that be state, district, or school as a directive, but where decisions are made that can be collaborative, they are genuinely an act of shared labor among the professionals.
For example, when school leaders look at our site-based budget as a pie, everyone inherently understands that the bigger the piece person A gets, the smaller the piece that could be left for person B. We quit the “pie” philosophy of budgeting and adopted the “love” philosophy of budgeting. If parents have two children and welcome a third child into the family, the priority is the family. The parents now have one more person to love, but the new addition doesn’t mean that the parents love the older two children less.
At Hunters Lane High School, we modified the typical order of the budget process. Step one was to no longer share how much money we have to spend. We moved away from set amounts for different departments. Instead, our leadership team—which includes department heads, team leaders, the librarian, lead counselor, coordinators of the IB programs, and administrators—meets to determine what the represented groups need. A needs assessment became our first step. Math may need calculators or batteries and science may require a certain amount for chemicals and other lab supplies. There is no quid pro quo where one gets an extra $1,000 because another department got $1,000. After all the departments have shared their needs, we add up the costs of fulfilling our needs, and then, and only then, do we share how much we have budgeted to spend.
Our budget has exceeded our requests for the past eight years, and we generally end up adding money collectively to different groups. This is because we are not competing for scarce resources. We are a team of professionals working to support the same group of kids: our student body. It is a philosophical shift grounded in wellness because it sends a strong message that every department and curriculum area is important, and everything we are teaching students is part of a holistic approach that results in a well-rounded education up until the day the student gets their diploma. Whenever we share this budgeting process, others are often incredulous about this transformation. While we agree that part of what makes this magic work is a group of phenomenal kid-centered educators, wellness encompasses feeling empowered to do the right thing for students, educators’ approach to their work, and the attitude they bring to the job each day.
Tap Teachers for Input
Teacher empowerment is also shown in the way that we provide professional development for our teachers and how school-based initiatives are run. We believe that the answers to our challenges usually reside in our own building. It is rare that an area of weakness is found with 100 percent of teachers; generally, there are pockets of greatness right alongside those areas of need. It is the leaders’ job to find that greatness and utilize teacher strengths effectively, including to train other teachers. It is important that it is not just the same five teachers providing all of the professional development, but rather a wide range of teachers with varying levels of experience who are all “experts” in different areas. This way all teachers are the “pupils” and all teachers are the “masters,” and it really is about being part of a team.
Our teachers have also transformed the way we provide instruction in our building in major ways. When the leadership was concerned that not all teachers were able to effectively manage our 90-minute class blocks, we first looked to those teachers who made the most of their instructional time. When we discussed what we saw in those classrooms, we found a pattern of effective practices. We branded this structure the “Warrior Rainbow” and used it throughout the school. There were immediate differences in how time was used in the building, and students and struggling teachers benefited from the consistent structure.
It was also teachers who led us to become a blended learning school in 2014, long before online learning became a necessity. When two of our teachers joined a pilot for a blended learning program for AP and IB students, they immediately saw the benefits for all students and brought the idea of expanding the program throughout the school to the principal, who approved and allowed for teacher-driven development through the whole process. Just as it is important for school not to be something done to students, it is important whenever possible for change and initiatives to not be done to teachers, but rather with them.
Maintaining and expanding wellness is an integral part of a school metamorphosis because there is discomfort that accompanies the growth process, and the school leadership must be sensitive to that challenging part of evolution. School leaders are often challenged to make sweeping adjustments that result in immediate improvements. Quick changes are rarely lasting, and they often come at a huge cost to the morale of students and staff. Transformations, on the other hand, are not cosmetic. They are grounded in a deeply held, shared belief that an organization can be better tomorrow than it is today. Turnaround is more about what we believe than it is what we do, and we have to create conditions that heighten the levels of wellness within the key people who make schools operate—students and the professionals who work with them. Through this process, lasting change is possible.
Susan Stone Kessler, EdD, is the executive principal at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, TN, and April Snodgrass, MEd, is the assistant principal.
Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections
Dimension: Strategic Management
Setting priorities. Alone and collaboratively, you can assess conditions at the school to identify the areas with the greatest potential or need toward meeting the school’s vision and mission.
Strategic Management is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.