Can Struggling Students Succeed in Your Culture?

In my free time, I love to read.  Usually, I finish multiple fiction and non-fiction books a year.  But like other school administrators, my free time during the school year is extremely limited.  While I do not get to read as much during the school year as I would like, I begin forming a “most wanted” list during the year and stockpile the books to read over vacation.  One of my favorite books from this past summer was Boys in the Boat, by Daniel J. Brown.  Boys in the Boat tells the true story of the struggles and triumphs of Joe Rantz and his crewmates who competed in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Berlin.  Connie also read Boys in the Boat, and in our conversations about the book, we discovered how Joe personified several qualities that we hope to see in ourselves, as well as see in our staff and students.  Because of the challenges Joe had to overcome in his life, we decided that Boys in the Boat would be a central theme for our school for the year.

Joe’s trials and challenges would make a Hollywood script almost unbelievable.  In short, he was born at the onset of the Great Depression, lost his mother as a young boy, and was abandoned by his father and step-mother as they packed their belongings and deserted Joe to fend for himself as a young teenager.  To stay alive, Joe foraged for berries and fished from local streams with make-shift poles and sold his catches. He did every back-breaking job he could find. While his seemingly desolate life would have made lesser men turn to crime or even suicide, Joe unknowingly was being prepared physically and mentally for what was to come as a high school graduate, University of Washington student, and as an Olympian.  

As a school, our professional learning for this year will be centered around several themes taken from the book. As faculty and student body, we will use Joe as an object lesson as we focus on goals, vision, teamwork, overcoming adversity, focus, and trust.  So far this year, we have discussed vision and goals as a staff. Joe’s vision was to win the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. As a school, each department has created and posted their visions for this year. Creating and posting visions in the hallways will serve as a reminder to our teachers and students what direction we are heading each day.  

Joe’s goal was to be a part of the crew team that would compete in the Berlin Olympics.  As a staff and in a homeroom with students, we discussed the importance of goals and laid out our goals for this year.  We watched this video to get the conversation started with our students.  We have challenged our staff to think of the one thing we can do each day to lay the foundation for a relevant, instruction-based lesson.  For us, the one thing we can do “to make our bed” each class period is to review the learning target and standards for the day. It is on that habitual foundation that the remainder of the class period lays.

We will continue to use the story of Joe Rantz and his crew team as professional learning and homeroom topics throughout the year.  Joe’s ability to overcome adversity in his life will be a focal point of an upcoming faculty meeting and a future homeroom lesson. Even though the book does not specifically say it, I would like to think that Joe Rantz had a teacher or administrator in his life that pushed him to high school graduation and his goals.  If Joe, who was poor, starved, and abandoned, was a student in your school would he still become an Olympian? One of Dr. Franklin’s points of emphasis over the years is that “Every student has a story, and every story matters”. Is the culture of your school strong enough to identify at-risk students and provide the supports needed to academically, socially, and athletically excel?  By making each student know they are valuable, by forming appropriate relationship with students, and by providing academic supports for at-risk students, each school culture can be strong enough to push our Joe Rantz’s to their potential.

A few things we do to support at-risk students:

  • Collaborate with feeder schools to identify at-risk students before school starts
  • Before and after school tutoring
  • Elective study skills classes
  • Mandatory academic detentions
  • Credit recovery options
  • Intentional teacher/student relationship
  • End of Course Test “blitz” sessions
  • House System (stayed tuned for next week’s blog about the House System)
  • Goal setting and monitoring in homeroom
  • School counselor support
  • High expectations that every student can succeed

This blog was written by David Leenman. Mr. Leenman is in his 13th year of education. He has served in both middle and high schools. Before becoming an assistant principal, Mr. Leenman worked in special education and history and coached basketball, football, and soccer.

Categories: Uncategorized

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