NASSP’s High School Principal of the Year (2013) Trevor Greene knows what it takes to build a strong culture of success for his students and staff. With a conviction that all students deserve a great education and a plan for their future, Trevor made establishing a college and career readiness culture a high priority at Toppenish High School (Washington), which serves a high minority (95%) and high poverty (100%) population. This culture led to a rapid increase in graduation rates, jumping from 84.6% in 2008 to 98.3% in 2010.
One of the key strategies to develop that culture was leveraging an advisory structure –one that distributes the guidance process, providing a college and career planning curriculum, academic monitoring, and an ongoing relationship between student and advisor. “I attribute our graduation rate increase directly to what we’ve been doing in our advisory. I am a true believer, “ asserts Greene. The best advisory models are effective only with an accompanying strong culture. Greene built a strong culture through high expectations, high support, and strong relationships.
Greene’s students know that they are expected to graduate and prepare for their futures. The Toppenish advisory program emphasizes goal setting and academic monitoring, and is a vehicle through which high expectations and college and career requirements are conveyed. Concurrently, Greene expanded and supported academic opportunities for his students, added rigorous courses, including 27 high-profile engineering and biomedical PLTW classes, a Microsoft IT Academy class, and a robotics class. To give students an opportunity to pursue postsecondary education, he made it possible for them to earn 30 college credits by the time they graduate from high school. Further, the number of students with college-ready transcripts increased from 28% in 2008 to over half of students today.
Administrators, counselors and teachers worked together to establish the purposeful advisory periods while increasing support for the more rigorous academic focus. The advisory meets multiple times per week and was deepened in focus and effectiveness through a six-year grant from College Spark Washington (Greene now serves on their Board) in conjunction with OSPI. Advisory curriculum has been a blended approach – with students completing a portion of the curriculum through online, self-guided lessons, along with traditional classroom discussions, activities and conferences focused on goal setting, college admissions, study skills, financial aid, and more.
Beyond advisory, school-wide communication is critical for high support of and accountability for students. For example, when Principal Greene saw a student who was skipping a class period, he pulled out his iPad, took a photo of the student, time stamped it and distributed to teachers, advisors, and parents all at once. Some students asked if they could pose! The purpose was to ensure all pertinent staff members had real-time information, so they could follow up appropriately to ensure the student would attend and succeed.
The pieces of the puzzle for a strong culture are solidified through strong relationships. What follows is a brief story that demonstrates how high expectations, high support, and strong relationships interact to shape a student’s academic pursuits.
A THS student and his advisor (who was also a PLTW teacher) were discussing registration plans. The student expressed how much he loved taking the STEM engineering classes and that he wanted to sign up for another. The advisor inquired further saying, “You’ve taken 4 of these STEM classes – what’s your career goal?” After the student indicated he wanted to be an engineer, the advisor helped him connect the dots. “I see you still haven’t taken Trig. You’re taking all these engineering classes because you enjoy them, but you aren’t backfilling what you need to go forward.” By simply having that conversation, the student decided to take Trig.
Greene states that, “it was because of the ongoing relationship between student and advisor that this conversation happened.
Greene’s work at Toppenish High School provides a great example of how to build a strong culture as we look to effectively guide next-gen students to their preferred futures.