How important is the letter A? Let me tell you. When our alphabet was created 4,000 years ago, the letter A was one of only five letters awarded the highest distinction of being a vowel. In fact, if letters were camped out overnight to get the hottest concert tickets around, the letter A would be the first in line. Ultimately, the letter A defines our nation because we are not called the United States, but the United States of America! Chanting, “U-S-A!” at the Olympics wouldn’t be the same without the letter A. 

There is one word in particular where the letter A plays a significant role in its meaning, but the letter is often forgotten because of our pronunciation. It is a word to strive for and a word that can change mindsets: extraordinary. The “a” is the most important part of the word turning the ordinary into EXTRA-ordinary

Jarrett Middle School, the small suburban school that I lead in Honolulu, HI, sits next to two Section 8 housing complexes. We have the typical challenges that come with approximately 75% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Some challenges include high chronic absenteeism, a lack of parental involvement, and low academic achievement. On average, nearly 70% of our students come to our school reading below grade level. No matter which way you look at our statistics, our students come to us behind. This is where the simple, but powerful EXTRA-ordinary mindset takes root.

It isn’t good enough to tell our students to strive to be extraordinary. Students need concrete examples of what it means to be EXTRA-ordinary. What’s in it for them? Why should they do extra? Why should they work harder? These questions transform into answers at our opening welcome assembly each year. 

Four students are chosen to represent different race-of-life scenarios. These scenarios are not revealed to the student body until the end.

  • Scenario 1: The average middle school student who is on track to be college or career ready. This student walks at a normal pace throughout the race.
  • Scenario 2: The ordinary student who gives up when faced with adversity. This student stays still for the whole race. 
  • Scenario 3: The ordinary student who doesn’t want to do extra work and does the same thing every year. This student walks at the same pace as the student in Scenario 1.
  • Scenario 4: The EXTRA-ordinary student who does little things every day to improve themselves. This student walks at a faster pace than the students in Scenarios 1 and 3. 

This walking race would be exciting in and of itself with adolescent middle school students cheering each other on, but I add a twist of intrigue to get the students to reflect on reality. As I am about to begin our race with much student anticipation, I stop everyone and announce changes. 

  • Student #2 (the ordinary student who gives up when faced with adversity and stays still during the race): Now, you often are tardy to school because you are up late and are chronically absent because you don’t go to the doctor whenever you get sick, take 20 steps back. 
  • Student #3 (the ordinary student who doesn’t want to do extra work and walks at an average pace): Now, you didn’t go to preschool and started to learn your alphabet at a later age, take 10 steps back. 
  • Student #4 (the EXTRA-ordinary student who does little things every day to improve themselves): Now, you sometimes don’t have dinner at night and take care of your two siblings while your mom is working, take 15 steps back. 

These modifications to the race produce whispers of unfairness from the students and spark the start of a welcomed discussion. We talk about challenges that students have encountered while growing up, and, ultimately, we conclude that everyone experiences different levels of challenges, that life is not fair, and the key to overcoming challenges in life is how we react to them. 

We begin the race and students love cheering for their classmates and yelling even louder encouragements to Student 3 who walks slowly and Student 2 who doesn’t even start.

We talk about Students 2 and 3, and I point out that when we don’t do things to improve ourselves, then we are like Student 3 who will move forward, but never catch up. Then, I ask students to raise their hands if they’ve ever quit when something became difficult. I tell all of them that at some point in our lives, we (students and educators alike) are Student 2; we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to catch up. Unanimously, students agree that they need to focus on self-improvement. 

Next, we shift our attention to our EXTRA-​ordinary Student 4 who catches up. We discuss things like better engaging in study habits, setting higher behavior expectations, and positively representing our families in the community. I try to take a student’s diminished sense of self and raise it to the level of personal pride. 

We talk about concrete behaviors of ordinary students and contrast them with EXTRA-ordinary students’ actions. 

  • Ordinary students talk badly about others on social media or want to fight when they are disrespected. EXTRA-ordinary students seek help from their counselor or a friend to problem solve and do the right thing. 
  • Ordinary students laugh and walk right past someone who trips or drops their books. EXTRA-ordinary students help the person up and collect their belongings. 
  • Ordinary students procrastinate or do not complete their homework. EXTRA-ordinary students plan to get their work done early and use their free time to read and take care of other responsibilities. 

This opening assembly sets the tone for the rest of the year. It’s a shift in mindset from accepting the stereotypical behaviors that come with poverty and shifting to expecting better, being better, and building that internal desire to strive to be EXTRA-ordinary. 

Some of our behavior data has helped to change the negative reputation of our school. We strive to provide a middle school experience in a calm and respectful school environment. To that end, we went two years without a single fight on campus. We almost extended our spree for a third year in a row until one fight occurred in the last week of school. Additionally, my adamant stance on profanity has set the expectation of not swearing on campus, and it is common to never hear a profane word around our school. Students have internalized the goal of being better and doing better.

When students feel safe enough to focus on their learning, the definition of being cool in school shifts from anti-social behaviors to striving to do well, and positive academic results follow. For example, on the state tests, our reading, math, and science scores have mainly been at or above the state average. I attribute these results to our online reading program that focuses on nonfiction. In addition, our students have far surpassed the average annual Lexile growth for middle school students, and as a school, we average around twice the national average of growth in Lexile levels. These positive examples have been tracked by an outside education research group that factors in the socioeconomic status of students. Our data show that, for the past five years, students have been performing well above their peers in Honolulu from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. This growth was a crystallization of everyone’s efforts to make our school more than an ordinary middle school.

Striving to be EXTRA-ordinary is easy to remember but complex to achieve. Getting our students and faculty to reject the ordinary is a powerful mindset shift that takes a lot of hard work. I thank the students, teachers, faculty, community partners, and parents who have built our school into what it is today. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for our school as we continue to pronounce the letter A in EXTRA-ordinary. 

Reid Kuba, PhD, is the principal of Jarrett Middle School in Honolulu, HI, and NASSP’s 2021 Hawaii Principal of the Year.