Indio High School in Indio, CA, is very much a community school. We have three generations of families that have attended our school—students who are here now and whose parents and grandparents all attended here as well.

I graduated from Indio High School myself, as did almost a third of my staff members. There’s just a strong sense of connection in our community. People want to come back to the school. They feel like the school did something for them, and they want to give back.

One thing I’ve focused on in my seven years as principal is making sure the entire staff is engaged and involved in everything that goes on at the school, from our part-time nutrition staff to our custodians and maintenance workers to our office staff and our paraeducators. Many of them also graduated from the school, and others are parents of current or former students.

Our school of more than 2,000 students, more than 90% of whom are Hispanic and come from low-income families, has been around since 1958. During my second year as principal, the school was upgraded and modernized, and it went into what I call “rebirth mode.” The renovation gave us an opportunity to update and revise everything we did—including our mission statement, which emphasizes school culture.

Listening to Every Voice

For me, it’s vital that everyone’s voice be heard, including all our staff. So, our classified staff elect a representative to serve on our school site council. The council meets with me monthly and has a say in important decisions affecting school budget and programs.

When you ask the kids on campus who they see as trusted adults, many of them will say a teacher but just as many will say the security officer or the night custodian. They are just as likely to confide in our classified staff as in a classroom teacher.

Many of our classified staff also have key roles in engaging with our students’ families. One staff member—our community tech—serves as a liaison within the community. If we have parents who weren’t successful in school themselves or are newcomers to the country or new to our area, it can be intimidating to walk into a big, two-story building. So, we ensure that Hispanic families’ first contact in the building is with someone who speaks Spanish—either our community tech or other office staff member. We want them to see the school as a friendly place where they can ask questions, and our staff does a great job of making that happen.

I also believe it’s important to recognize the good work of all our staff—not just our teachers. We have a weekly bulletin for staff, and there’s a “kudos” section at the end where staff members can offer shoutouts to their colleagues. As often as not, those public thank yous are directed at our classified staff and the valuable work they do.

Ensuring Opportunities to Gather

By the nature of their jobs, teachers regularly get together with each other through department or grade-level meetings. Classified staff don’t often have that opportunity. So once a month, we hold a shared potluck birthday celebration for everyone who had a birthday that month. It enables classified staff to interact with each other more often so they can build connections.

I want all our staff, no matter what their position, to feel like the professionals they are. At the beginning of the year, I have business cards made for all our classified staff. We also print sets of notepads with their names on them, so when they send a note to a teacher or take a phone message, for example, it says “a note from.” It shows they that are indeed a part of our professional setting and that they are valued. These things are not fancy or expensive but very much appreciated.

I think every principal who makes a classroom observation visit is used to leaving a note behind with feedback for the teacher. At our school, my assistant principals and I do something similar for classified staff. We’ll write a thank-you note for them and leave it in a public space like on their computer monitor—not just in their mailbox—so others can see it. Besides offering our appreciation, we try to tie those notes to our school’s mission and goals. It enables classified staff to take pride in their work, and it also illustrates everybody’s value in positively contributing to what we want to do for our students.

Celebrating Diverse Backgrounds and Skills

One of the best things we’ve done has led to some wonderful surprises. At the beginning of each year, our teachers put together a Google slide deck, where they share a bit about their backgrounds and introduce themselves to the kids. Last year, as we returned to school after COVID, we decided to open that up to our classified staff so they also could create a slide to share about themselves and the kids could get to know them. Every day on our morning news, which is broadcast over video to every classroom, a classified employee is featured. This really has been one of the biggest hits.

We’ve learned some amazing things about our staff. For instance, one of our custodians worked as an engineer in the U.S. Army, so now all our classes want him to come talk about his experiences. We have another staff member who is a grandmother and is taking American Sign Language classes at the local community college. She’s been talking to some of our students who aren’t really interested in college about how it’s never too late to learn something new.

This simple act has brought about increased respect for the classified staff and greater interest among students in learning about these professionals’ skills, backgrounds, and talents. I’ve learned new things about them, too. It turns out they really are the ideal guest speaker. By sharing their stories, our classified staff can better connect with and inspire the kids. Watching all this unfold has been incredibly rewarding.

Derrick Lawson is the principal of Indio High School in Indio, CA, and a member of NASSP’s Board of Directors.