Students at Calera High School are taking ownership of their own education. As part of a Shelby County Schools focus on student-led conferences, ninth graders are conducting “My High School Future Projects” in Erin Golden’s English class.
Seniors have been doing a project similar to this called My Future for the last seven years in Shelby County Schools as a way of helping them reflect and prepare for life after high school. Principal Joel Dixon said it seemed valuable to add something similar to assist with the transition from middle school to high school.
“The transition from middle school to high school is a challenging one,” said Dixon. “Typically, there’s a step up in academic rigor. There are more freedoms but also a greater expectation for responsibility. I believe this is an important step toward helping students take ownership in their education.”
Students reflect on a variety of topics and present to their peers. Administrators and counselors also sit in on the presentations and offer feedback. Golden said she sees a wealth of benefits to this project, including student’s realization of thinking about graduation as soon as they start high school.
“I’ve noticed freshmen becoming more aware of the looming deadline of graduation,” she said. “This really seems to bring home just how quick graduation will be here. Self-reflection can be tough for high schoolers and I’ve seen a lot of it in this and to a high degree. The project also allows them the chance to practice ‘selling’ themselves, considering their strengths and weaknesses.”
“I’ve been really impressed with the honesty they’ve shown in their presentations,” said senior counselor Leslie Walker. “It’s the kind of moments that educators strive for.”
The ninth grade is a particularly important one as national data suggests that freshmen students have the highest rates of grade retention and disciplinary infractions.
“There’s a wealth of research to suggest that the ninth grade year is a make-or-break year. It sets the tone for the next four years,” said Walker.
The school has done many activities in the past to help make the transition to high school easier for the freshman, such as school tours, freshman orientation, and Peer Helper presentations on keys to succeeding` in high school.
“This is our first effort, led by the students themselves, asking them to evaluate where they are and where they want to go,” said Walker.
“It’s been very insightful to see students recognize their own uniqueness as well as the diversity of the other students around them,” Golden added. “I think more than anything, the biggest benefits is the kids’ sense of buying into their own education, recognizing the balance of freedom with responsibility.
Ms. Golden’s freshman students believe the project has been worthwhile, noting that they are becoming more self-aware, especially about their future past high school.
“I think the project helps lay out a plan for the things I want to accomplish before graduating high school,” said Sam Graham.
Noel Williams sees ramifications well beyond high school, “This projects definitely helped me think beyond my immediate plans: college, law school, and my life after.”
Other students see a more immediate impact, one that connects them to one another.
“I learned that even though it may seem like some people don’t care, they really do,” said Hannah Hall. “They just need someone to push them and help them stay on the right track.”
Dixon said at the end of school announcements each day, students are reminded ‘You’re an Eagle…what you do matters.’
“It’s our official, unofficial motto,” Dixon said. “But honestly, what do any of us want for our children but to see them grow and have an understanding that they have control over their choices, good and bad, and that fact more than anything else controls their future? That’s always been the goal of education.”
Another group of students in engaging in student-led conferences at the high school. Tracy Kies, a special education teacher has been assisting her students prepare for and conduct their IEP meetings in which they present their academic strengths, weaknesses, and goals in accordance with their Individual Education Plans. Kies immediately saw a connection with the concept of student-led conferences.
“Being a Special Education teacher has always given me a tremendous opportunity to get to know my students, namely in a small group setting, or so I thought,” Kies said. “This year my students have practiced becoming self-advocates and being proactive in their education and their needs in order to be successful in school.”
Parents, teachers, and central office personnel attend IEP conferences and work together to develop and adjust the plan as students progress through school. This year, the students themselves took a much bigger role.
“Each created a presentation about themselves – likes, dislikes, what helps them in school and why. They were given a simple outline with instructions for the presentation to create of a picture of who they are and what they wanted their teachers to know,” said Kies. “We learned why they need their accommodations from their perspective – what makes them feel successful in school. We were are able to understand the needs of our students better than ever before.”
“In the end, the goal for all our students, Dixon says, “is to be prepared, to recognize that they are the ultimate determiner in their success and the ultimate solution to their struggles.”
”We believe this can only help our students be even more prepared for their journeys, and isn’t that the point afterall?” added Ms. Walker.