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Whether students are in the classroom in-person, online, or hybrid, feeling connected to their teachers and peers is more important than ever. An experienced high school principal reflects on what it means to be a connected high school.

In a connected high school, students don’t merely go to school. They engage deeply in learning and leadership opportunities, and they are taught, mentored, and coached by teaching teams.

School research demonstrates that educators and students coming together in a group, community, team, or family-structure will enhance the probability of learning, personal satisfaction, and growth (School Redesign Network, 2002). Why don’t all schools leverage this important team concept to empower students and provide momentum to the learning culture? It is demanding; it takes time, and where do I start? 

There are stark differences between effective and struggling schools. The defining attributes of effective schools are connections, engagement, and action. These elements are woven into the fabric of the school’s collaborative mission, vision, and values. Effective schools often adopt the language and habits of success through a dedicated learning community’s development and action. 

In a real learning community, collaboration is the main activity. The descriptors of community, family, and team drive leadership and engagement. In these learning organizations, “teams are groups of people working interdependently to achieve common, specific, results-oriented goals for which members are mutually accountable.”  

Such collaboration doesn’t happen by accident but, instead, as the result of a systematic plan.  As Peter Senge, founder of the Society for Organizational Learning, explains, “Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.” 

In the connected school, the mission, vision, and values are actioned through the development and implementation of a policy and professional practice and are measured to assure fidelity. Teacher leaders’ consistent habits and actions, individual students, and student learning teams drive expected outcomes.  

What if we expect values-based connection and engagement in our learning community? In that case, we need to systematically provide user-friendly, multi-variable options such as the following to drive expected outcomes and meet the needs of students and the learning community:

Six Ways to Foster Connections and Build Engagement

  • Teacher Professional Learning Communities: committed to academic planning, common formative assessment development, and student outcome data review, student intervention (academic/behavioral), student and learning community communication 
  • Formal Student Academic Connections: centered around grade-level student learning teams, course/student term phasing, grade level transition team platooning, grade level in- and out-of-school-themed retreats (team building, diversity/equity, social issue understanding)
  • Personal Interaction (face-to-face): personal and professional availability and intentional engagement between students and teacher and support personnel; student orientation, open houses, conferences, developmental guidance programs via classroom presentations and informal student meetings before and after school, during lunch and by appointment; peer tutoring and peer academic assistance and support; celebrations
  • Student Involvement (formal and informal for ALL students): leadership involvement and training; academic clubs and competitions; performing arts, athletics, intramurals, open social and special interest activities, and clubs driven by student interest
  • Communication (pushed to the student and learning community): transparency enabled through daily email bursts, student digital absence / tardy reporting via voicemail and email, monthly academic progress reporting, quarterly student achievement and needs reporting, standardized test results reporting, special development events, and post-high school planning emails, quarterly digital newsletter
  • Web-based Real-time Information Access: additional transparency through Parent/student portals (student system-learning/behavior progress), learning management system, post-high school and college planning tools, personal learning plans, and team-based, “whole child” approach to student support services.

The Student Learning Journey

The student learning team process is enhanced through humanistic engagement, creating more profound personal associations between educators and their teammates (students) through the pride of ownership and leadership in the learning experience. Establishing student learning team names creates an identity and a commitment to the broader learning community’s guiding principles (mission, vision values). These norms are collaboratively created. Training woven into the core curriculum includes in- and out-of-school retreats and team-building experiences. The teaching team’s continued attention to adolescents’ personal growth needs is paramount and provides attentiveness to such wide-ranging things as students’ anxiety over “who will I eat lunch with as a new school year begins?” 

Systems that encourage habitual action drive learning momentum across both faculty and student learning teams. 

Final Thoughts

As we develop and coach our students, it is critical that our scholars understand themselves as learners, grow their abilities to reflect on their progress realistically, create a plan for their growth, and develop ownership for their learning. When students see themselves as scholars and are supported by their teachers, they will rise to the challenge.

In the connected high school, a Scholar is a learner; a person who is engaged in the pursuit of learning; an educated person; a lifelong learner; a person whose purpose is to contribute to society’s betterment.

Randall Peterson

Dr. Randall Peterson is currently the Educational Leadership Program Director and an assistant professor at Barry University in Miami, Florida (The Adrian Dominican School of Education). Previously, he was the Principal of Eastview High School (pop. 2400), a nationally recognized 9-12 comprehensive and college preparatory high school in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Peterson is a 37-year veteran educator who has worked in elementary and secondary, private, and public schools and continues to preach and teach educational equity and quality to support our students and learning communities.