One positive change leads to another

I have had the honor of serving Webster City High School students for the past nine years – seven as the assistant principal and the last two as its principal – and in that time I have witnessed several notable positive shifts in both the climate and culture of the high school.

To paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, “The first step for young people to control their world is to control their culture to model and demonstrate the kind of world they demand to live in.” What does this mean to the students of WCHS and more importantly, the culture and climate of the school? Well, the staff and I?have posed this question to the students several times this year: “What kind of school do you want?”

To begin, the culture and climate of a school is like getting your yard in tip-top-shape: it takes hard work getting there and once you do, well, the job isn’t over. It takes constant tending, grooming, and attention to even entertain the idea of maintaining excellence. The same goes for the culture and climate of a school-or any organization for that matter: the stakeholders and those with a vested interest are the ones who must constantly tend the fruit of the garden they wish to grow. Even more true is the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child” and that means the entire town of Webster City, including teachers, parents, and community members help grow, change, and shape the culture and climate of the high school.

As the students of a school change each year, so does its culture and climate – hence the never-ending cycle of working on it. Since my arrival at WCHS in the fall of 2004, and in conjunction with the implementation of various district initiatives such as PBIS (including anti-bullying measures), the revision of grading practices and policies, and an overall focus on responsible citizenship, WCHS’s climate and culture has definitely taken a positive step forward.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is a program that basically undertakes the responsibility of teaching student behavioral expectations in school-very much along the thought of, If students don’t know math, you teach it to them. If they don’t know how to act or behave in certain school settings, you teach it to them. In this area, I am most proud to say that our students have made tremendous strides: not even 15 years ago, ODRs (office discipline referrals) peaked at over 2,200-meaning, on a statistical average, every single student in school received about 4 ODRs a year. Imagine all of the misbehaviors teachers dealt with that they didn’t put on paper. Since PBIS was introduced 9 years ago, the last average the 3 years is about 340.

This one change alone – in behavior-served as a domino for more positive shifts such as the near-extinction of truancy (a.k.a. “skipping class or school”): 10 years ago truancy averaged about 300 incidents a year while the average the past five years is about 50 per year. Students in class (where they belong) has led to an increase in WCHS’s attendance rate which is about, on average, 95 percent. This positive change has led to more kids learning, and in conjunction with the grading policies and practices (which focus on improving instructional practices, assessing students on what they learn, and having students taking ownership of their learning), a reduction in the high school’s failure rate has occurred: a mere 5 years ago over 1/3 (35 percent) of our students failed a class whereas now that number is just under 10 percent. What else has resulted from this? For 3 straight years (up until last year), those students taking the ACT scored above the State Average for the first time ever since that data has been tracked in the early 1980s.

The list goes on and on – I could easily write an essay about how I have personally witnessed students stand up to bullies, for both themselves and others, and not put up with intolerable behavior such as profanity, disrespect, or drugs in school. My point is: one positive change leads to another, and WCHS’s progressive change in culture and climate has literally been a Live Evolution to see.

Recently, the Class of 2013 graduated and prior to their last day in school, more than 100 (out of 131) graduates participated in a “Community Service Day” which was organized by Assistant Principal Troy Smock. Basically, the seniors rolled up their sleeves and got to work, first cleaning up all of the buildings and grounds in the district before moving onto most of the parks in town, around Kendall Young Library, Fuller Hall, and Brewer Creek Trail. “Getting to work” meant picking up trash and tree limbs, landscaping, pulling weeds, and mulching. They got sweaty and dirty and essentially gave back to the this great community by helping clean it up. And the kicker of all this? Most of the seniors I spoke with enjoyed doing it. As one of them, Bridget Moriarty said, “It’s a way of giving back to our town.”

In conclusion, if we truly teach our kids about citizenship, especially since we now live in a global society, if what I’ve written isn’t something to be proud of, then I don’t know what is-because while I’ll never claim that WCHS is a perfect place, I will say that its students, teachers, and staff are trying to make it the best place it can be.