In most of the schools and districts that I work in, this is graduation week. In fact, several of the ceremonies are today! A time for so many mixed emotions… celebrations, anxiety about next steps, good-byes, goals attained and for some families and students, it is a disappointing time. High school teachers and administrators are also feeling the emotions… pride fills the auditoriums as students cross the stage. Sadness is the reality for the students who were not able to be there with them. What really influences the student’s ability to get to this finish line? Who has the impact?
At a recent elementary school visit, I had the opportunity to see the graduating seniors come back to their home school to be honored. The high school marching band led the seniors through the hallways of the elementary school and the young students and their teachers were out in the hallways ready to clap and cheer on the seniors. Some of the elementary teachers recognized seniors that they had taught and the energy and enthusiasm in the air was contagious! It was a celebration of reaching the ultimate goal of high school graduation. For many of these seniors, they were the first graduates in their families. They are role models for both their family and others and this was truly obvious to me as the observer that morning. I heard young students exclaim, “Look, JD is graduating!”, “There is my neighbor, I didn’t know that she was a graduate!”. And, as the teachers reminded me, this was a high school that has worked very hard to increase their graduate rate by diligently working to meet the needs of students and ensuring success. I learned that the high school has a motto, “whatever it takes”. I like this focus.
I really appreciate that the high school is celebrating graduation with their neighboring schools. Besides providing an opportunity for the seniors to feel celebrated and honored, it is a real teachable moment for the elementary children. In school improvement, we talk all the time about students owning their learning, setting goals and knowing what they have to do to achieve their goals. And, in many high poverty neighborhoods, graduation is truly a difficult goal. Besides the obvious academic struggles, life happens. Staying focused on the goal of completing school is a challenge for many. Seeing what can happen if you stay with it is an amazing visual for the younger students.
I was moved by the conversations that the elementary teachers were having. They were really sharing ownership of the students who they had taught. They were reminiscing about some events that were remembered and genuinely surprised to see some of the students who they knew had struggled. There was disappointment when they recognized that some students were missing. It really struck me that, despite not being the high school teachers who had the pleasure of teaching these students the past few years, they still felt responsible for them.
Isn’t this what school improvement is really about? Understanding that, beginning in early years and moving all the way up to the 12th grade, we are all responsible? That there are learning progressions, in other words, if kindergarten teachers are not prepared to ensure their students leave mastering what is required by the end of kindergarten then students go in to first grade with a deficit. (I know the kindergarten teachers I work with and who are reading this are maybe a little tired of me telling them how important that they are to the big picture… but they sure are). That it isn’t just about the high school getting students to graduation, it is a community of educators, coaches, schools and families that get them there. It’s about shared responsibility for students all the way through, not just when they sit in front of us in class.
How do we create systems of ownership of all? What should be the expectations of K-12, creating cultures of coherence? In my experience, it takes strong leadership (district and school level) based on deep understanding that all grades impact the end goal; not just the state or provincial tested years. That having high expectations for all students to leave a grade proficient in essential learnings, in other words, what really is expected at that grade level has to be the system norm. For example, that writing in fifth grade shouldn’t look like writing in second grade and we definitely should not be ok with that. And, mostly, that students and teachers are well supported in meeting these grade level targets.
As we close another school year (and I know my friends in the northern states and Canada are not quite here yet), what have you done to contribute to a student’s success this year? Do you know the impact that you have had? Have you stopped and celebrated your small wins and the bigger wins as well? Can you see the need for all of us in education to share the ownership? Is it fair for high school teachers to feel the overwhelming responsibility to have students graduate? I know these questions might seem rhetorical to you, but please consider your contributions. Next time, I will write my twenty-fifth blog on improving schools. It will be my last for a couple of months as a take a summer break with you. Thank you for staying with me on this journey. I have loved your feedback and comments. See you next Saturday.