Benjamin Carrier, principal at George Washington High School (GWHS) in Ogden, UT, has noticed that slow, subtle changes in perspective make a huge difference in student success.
GWHS is an alternative high school focused around innovative learning. For years, GWHS struggled to raise graduation rates, one of the school’s primary performance measures. Graduation rates hovered near 25%, lower than comparable alternative schools and tied for second-to-last in Utah.
In 2017, however, rates rose dramatically. As of the time of writing (July 2017), the worst-case scenario is that 35% of students will graduate before the October 1 deadline. A more likely projection is 42%.
A Holistic Approach
GWHS achieved these results by adopting a holistic, collaborative approach to helping students. Mr. Carrier said, “As a staff, we try to figure out what’s going on with the student and make a combined effort to help them. For example, if a student isn’t attending or is failing multiple classes, we ask how we can work together to help out.”
Previously, teachers and administrators stayed in their lanes. If a student was struggling in math, everyone assumed it was the math teacher’s responsibility to help them improve—and the math teacher’s fault if they didn’t.
But sometimes the math teacher isn’t the best person for the job. Maybe that teacher is swamped trying to help other students. Maybe other staff are better suited to help, for any number of reasons.
Maybe the student doesn’t actually need help with math.
In one case, a student could not sit still when he got upset. He would become increasingly agitated and regularly disrupted class. The school’s normal measures to address class disruptions did not work.
Under the holistic approach, new possibilities opened up. When this student came up in the weekly staff meeting, the school custodian suggested that when the student got upset, the teacher could send him to the custodian’s office. The custodian could assign the student a task that would let him work out his energy and agitation through movement (cleaning, etc.), then send the student back to class when he’d calmed down.
The team liked this suggestion and agreed to try it out. Not only did it work, but everyone benefited. The student calmed down and could return to class more quickly. The class and teacher enjoyed less disruption. And the custodian got a little extra help on occasion.
Small Shifts Over Time Add Up to Big Change
In other cases, teachers have offered to tutor struggling students who aren’t in their classes.
This seemingly simple offer reveals a huge shift in mindset. Before implementing the holistic approach, Mr. Carrier said, “The idea of letting a student go to another teacher—it meant I wasn’t valuable as a teacher. I was giving up my power. It’s a big shift to have the confidence that if I let a kid take some of my assignments to another teacher, that doesn’t devalue me. Instead, I know we’re all in this together: My job helps yours, and yours helps mine.”
This change in perspective did not happen overnight. In fact, the shifts were quite subtle. Mr. Carrier reflected, “It takes some time and specific reflection to see, how is this person’s mindset different from last year? If I do that, I can definitely see changes in the people I work with. But it happens gradually. It’s a flow over time, not a quick fix.”