To promote the highest possible degree of student achievement in the wake of the pandemic, secondary schools must reengage their communities, creating a welcoming, safe, and affirming environment for students and their families. Success requires a multifaceted approach, including effective communication, invitational engagement, and a commitment to erasing barriers to inclusive participation. A culture of trust between a school and its community empowers all students to achieve their full potential and to meaningfully contribute to the world.
Located on the outskirts of suburban Washington, D.C., Dominion High School in Sterling, VA, draws students from multiple ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic communities. While many of our students enjoy an abundance of financial resources in the context of one of the country’s wealthiest counties, 43% of Dominion’s students are economically disadvantaged. The student body is comprised primarily of Hispanic, white, and Asian students. More telling, nearly half of Dominion students speak one of 44 languages other than English in their homes, and 18% of students were born outside the United States.
Families primarily come to our community in large numbers from Central America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. These families carry disparate expectations for educational institutions and cultural norms and practices. This beautiful tapestry of diversity provides significant opportunities for our students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally, but requires deliberate action by the entire community to close opportunity gaps.
A Warm Welcome
The foundation for our school’s plan to eliminate such gaps is a focus on building a community of trust. To that end, the “Titan Welcome Wagon” weaves an annual path through our community’s neighborhoods each summer. The wagon is a team of students, parents, and school staff members who visit every family entering Dominion High School for the first time during the months of July and August. These 15-minute, front-yard conversations empower school staff to become acquainted with new students, providing invaluable insight into the aspirations and resources each family holds for their new Titan.
These visits also invite a high level of student and parental engagement. We discuss each student’s schedule for the upcoming school year centered on the expectation that every student at Dominion will enroll in at least one honors, AP, or dual enrollment course each year of high school. The team also urges each new Titan to develop a specific plan to become immediately involved in a significant extracurricular activity at the outset of freshman year—whether it’s marching band, theater, athletics, dance team, or a club. Finally, parents receive an invitation to an August parent seminar, during which school staff shares with parents the powerful opportunities for engagement at the school while highlighting the wide array of resources we offer to support students’ academic, social, emotional, and behavioral success.
These parent seminars, presented in English and Spanish concurrently and attended by hundreds each summer, receive rave reviews for the insight they provide incoming parents about navigating the high school experience in partnership with their student and the school. At their core, these efforts reflect the deep level of trust, communication, and engagement between parents and school staff.
Our staffing also provides another hallmark of our community-based atmosphere. Currently, the staff boasts 29 parents of current students or graduates, eight staff members who are alumni of the school, and 17 staff members who have worked in the building since our opening in 2003. This continuity between groups helps to further enhance our traditions, norms, and expectations, while providing yet another layer of trust between school and community.
Rather than a host of constituent organizations with varying resources supporting the school’s students, Dominion’s Parent-Teacher Organization—ATLAS (Association of Titan Leaders Assisting Students)—serves as an umbrella organization to benefit every student at the school. Using a unique fundraising model and holding board meetings that include multiple staff members and representatives from fine arts and athletics ensures that advocates represent the widest range of interests and needs. General membership meetings focus on issues relevant to the practical experiences of parents of adolescents, and these gatherings always feature presentations simultaneously in English and Spanish.
This unique structure has enabled the community to raise over $100,000 annually for the school’s myriad activities, teams, and clubs, with over $50,000 available for the school staff to collaboratively identify initiatives requiring financial support in order to promote success for each and every Dominion student and the activities in which they engage.
Increasing community capacity requires enhanced patterns of communication and collaboration. While traditional approaches to communication serve portions of our community efficiently—including a PTO newsletter, robocalls, email messaging, print mail, and text messaging—reestablishing strong, two-way communication with our entire school community emerged as a leadership focus after the pandemic. In our efforts to find effective, timely, and concise pathways to communicate with our diverse population, we’ve explored the use of WhatsApp, a game-changing bridge for communication with our Spanish-speaking families. Because it allows us to couple mass communication in the target language with an opportunity for parents to ask questions privately for clarification, the WhatsApp group has increased the participation of Spanish-speaking families in our school events by at least 50%.
Given our priority in providing avenues for two-way communication, we’ve also created a Spanish-speaking parent focus group to give us rich feedback, and we plan to create similar focus and WhatsApp groups in the near future. This first group is similar to traditional parent organizations in that it provides a safe, supportive space for our Spanish-speaking parents to ask questions, learn about the school, and offer input about their child’s education.
Partnering With Families
Besides actively encouraging students from underrepresented groups to enroll in honors, AP, and dual enrollment courses, we assign teachers to academic support teams that engage and support students in literacy, numeracy, and executive-functioning skills. We further cultivate the academic community by engaging high-achieving students in tutoring and mentoring roles and by integrating restorative practices into our support centers and classrooms.
Dominion also leverages staff time and expertise to offer intervention for students through supported study halls, a writing center, a math lab, and the Titan Academic Growth and Support (TAGS) room. Teachers and peer mentors regularly tutor those students challenging themselves in honors, AP, or dual enrollment courses and those who may be experiencing academic struggles. Ideally, students take the initiative to access these supportive resources. However, a highly efficient process guarantees that teachers also may initiate the intervention for reluctant students.
Our staff leverages existing partnerships with parents to let them know about these support structures and how to ensure that their students access them. Our efforts have clearly paid off. So far, 70% of students who had never considered taking an honors, AP, or dual enrollment class prior to last year have shown success in that more rigorous environment, earning a C or better.
Our school community recognizes that each individual student must also reach their full potential beyond the context of the classroom. As a result, our partnership between the school, parents, and ATLAS provides all resources that students from all walks of life need to meaningfully engage in the school’s expansive extracurricular program, which features more than a dozen international partnerships with schools across the globe, a nationally acclaimed dance team, a full slate of fine arts performing ensembles, affinity groups aligning with the cultural identities of the student body, and multiple service organizations. The community supports this extraordinary assortment with their time, expertise, and tangible resources, in addition to their substantial financial contributions.
Complementing the rich extracurricular lineup is our athletic program, where students and the community come together in the shared experience of participating in and witnessing competition. Coaches in the Dominion Athletic Department are committed to creating transformational experiences for our athletes. We value broad participation and community contribution as highly as on-the-field/court achievements, and we actively remove barriers to participation for underresourced students and families. Working in partnership with a local doctor’s office, our school provides free physical examinations for any student who lacks access to health care. Community organizations provide personal equipment when necessary, including lacrosse sticks, softball gloves, and running shoes to ensure a level playing field for each student. As a result of these efforts, Dominion High School athletic programs enjoy a significantly higher rate of participation than all neighboring schools with a similar demographic profile.
Engagement inside and outside of the classroom serves as a prerequisite for students to fulfill their scholarly dreams while building a foundation for a life of significance. For many students, barriers to robust participation must be addressed at the familial level. Through proactive strategies that connect schools and families, communication patterns build trusting relationships that lay the groundwork for active participation of families and students in the most enriching curricular and extracurricular opportunities a school offers.
John Brewer, EdD, is the principal of Dominion High School in Sterling, VA. Nicole Maldonado is assistant principal and Kevin Throckmorton is the engagement coordinator of Dominion High School.