When Ann Bonitatibus took over at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST), she knew she was inheriting a strong academic program with a rich history of student success, an outstanding faculty, and a supportive parent community. She also learned early on that this success was often coming at the expense of the overall student and staff well-being.
One of the most common issues she heard about during her interview process was the extremely competitive nature of the school and its culture. While the toll on student well-being seemed clear to someone coming in with fresh eyes, Bonitatibus recognized that as a community they had not yet “named and claimed” student well-being as a challenge and opportunity to pursue.
Following a review of the available programs and approaches that address wellness, TJHSST found Challenge Success to be the best fit for self-exploration and next steps. TJHSST formed a Challenge Success Team to spearhead and coordinate the work.
Administering the Student Survey & Data Analysis
As a first step, the team had students take the Challenge Success Student Experience Survey. After conducting the survey, the team reviewed the data with researchers and program staff at Challenge Success. This data review provided critical context for student responses as well as guidance for continued team-level analysis and suggestions for particular areas to pursue. As the team further analyzed their data, three themes emerged as promising places for them to take action:
- Decoupling workload from their understanding of rigor to ease pressure on student time.
- Educating the community around the importance of sleep to improve collective health and well-being
- Strengthening relationships between and among all stakeholder groups, in large part by revisiting expectations related to workload and well-being.
These initial focus areas created a bridge from general concerns around student well-being to concrete goals and ideas they could begin to pursue as a community.
Identifying Next Steps and “Just One Thing”
After sharing the data and the emerging focus areas with the school community, the Challenge Success team helped the TJHSST staff move forward together by asking them to “pick just one thing” to try in the coming year that was:
- Different from the previous year and
- That they thought could help with one of the focus areas.
Teachers pursued a number of strategies ranging from student shadow days, where they would follow a student through their day to get a deeper understanding of their experience, to experimenting with project-based learning and more authentic assessments.
The team at TJHSST attributes this “just one thing” approach to much of their early success with staff. Setting the expectation that they only needed to try one thing made the process feel manageable and approachable, even with busy schedules.
Empowering teachers to choose what they wanted to try created a strong sense of buy-in, but it also leveraged important improvement science fundamentals. By starting small and then iterating and sharing as they went, the team was able to learn more about the student experience and effective strategies. This has led to stronger and more enduring changes in practices as well as culture.
Iterating Over Time
Often schools take the opposite approach, launching large, complex initiatives only to discover nuances and important factors after major investments of time and goodwill. TJHSST’s “start small and learn fast” approach nicely illustrates an effective and engaging approach to enduring school change, one that is also used by Challenge Success schools during the School Program.
To be clear, the change was not overnight, and school closures with COVID also paused some of the momentum. However, the progress to that point made many of the academic adaptations in the virtual environment a natural transition for staff.
Bonitatibus figures it took about two and a half years for the team to really start “firing on all cylinders,” but the results have been clear. One of their favorite indicators of growth is the fact that “fun” jumped into the top 3 words used by students to describe their experience at TJHSST on a recent internal survey modeled after the original Challenge Success student survey. This, along with seeing a continuously improving culture around sleep, use of time, and engaging pedagogy has helped the team sustain energy and enthusiasm for the work.
Curious about how a story like this could play out in your community? Already asking and answering some of these same questions? Reach out here to find a time for an informal chat with a member of our program team for thoughts and guidance on how to take your work to the next level.
Drew Schrader, M.Ed., is a School Program Manager. He has worked to help educators across a wide range of contexts redesign their systems around deeper learning for all students with a particular focus on project-based learning and authentic assessment. Prior to working at Challenge Success, he served as the Director of Assessment and a School Development Coach for New Tech Network. He was also a founding teacher and local teacher advocate at The Academy of Science and Entrepreneurship in Bloomington, IN. He has particular interests in improvement science and organizational change.