Student reflections on making personal connections click at innovative schools


Jan 4, 2018

This guest blog is written by Malaina Kapoor, a current high school student who decided to homeschool in order to expand her learning by blending interdisciplinary, real world, and academic-focused learning.  Her work has been published by Education Next, The Mercury News, and the Bluefire literary journal.

Over the last year, I interviewed students and educators to learn how some innovative schools might better prepare students to succeed within their models. My earlier posts highlighted challenges that students may experience as they adjust to taking more ownership of their learning, and why students in innovative models may not feel adequately prepared for success beyond high school. In this post, I will explore some of the difficult social adjustments these students reported and their recommendations for how schools pursuing innovative instructional models might ease students’ social transition.

Just like incoming high school freshmen all over the country, the six students I interviewed who had attended eleven different middle and high schools faced a dramatic social reshuffling. But students described particular struggles that may be unique to entering an innovative school environment.

Struggling to find their place

Students enrolling in innovative schools had often moved to smaller communities than those in their previous schools. As a result, finding a friend group was often a hit or miss situation. For example, a student named Annette described her high school experience as liberating: she cut and dyed her hair, made deep connections with new friends, and readily took advantage of the opportunity to “reinvent” herself. Yet Nevin, a student at the same school, felt that the school culture didn’t always speak to him. While he finds his classmates friendly, he doesn’t feel close ties with anyone.

Struggling to find a place can carry over into academic experiences in schools aiming to customize learning to each student. In some cases, the individualized and differentiated learning these students experienced posed an obstacle for social adjustment because students often found themselves on radically different tracks than their peers. For example, just within math, one student might be reviewing algebra while another tackles advanced calculus and another takes surveys to learn about statistics. According to some students, this left less time for camaraderie during the academic school day, even when time spent on group projects was taken into account.

School efforts that fall short

Many of the innovative high schools I spoke with tried to tackle these challenges head on by helping students foster a sense of self and community. Almost every school organized school-wide trips as opportunities for community-building. However, the students I spoke with found inadequacies with this approach. “[I don’t want just] a random picnic,” said Annette. “I want to meet people who are interested in what I am.” Annette articulated a point made by others. Camping trips and ice cream socials aren’t enough to help students find their own communities.

A number of schools also offered advisory programs that aim to give students peers to lean on as they adjust to a new environment. A group of students is typically paired with one advisor teacher. In principle, the students’ advisor should help them feel completely supported throughout high school by connecting with them on a personal level and helping them achieve the goals they set for themselves. Some students, however, didn’t feel this was happening. “I felt like teachers were just reading out of a book… their feedback and [Social and Emotional Learning instruction] felt inauthentic and sugar coated.” said one girl. “I didn’t feel a sense of community, and, after a while, it felt like a waste of time.”

Recommendations to improve social transitions

The students I interviewed offered a number of recommendations for how their schools could help them develop the sense of community and belonging. Many were adverse to the idea of large gatherings without a purpose, and instead suggested that their schools host more events targeted around specific areas of interest, academic or otherwise. Some ideas for events include:

  1. Guest speakers with follow-up activities and discussions planned for after speaking events.
  2. Live music events with local or student bands, choirs, or a capella groups.
  3. Mini “Startup Weekends”
  4. Sports scrimmages.
  5. Community volunteer and activism projects.
  6. Seminars or discussions with pre-reading to facilitate conversation or debate.
  7. Reading circles.
  8. Mixed age activities between younger and older students.

These opt-in events should be a major part of the orientation and transition program and should begin at the start of the school year.

Many emerging innovative schools today go beyond the rigidity of a traditional curriculum in order to expand students’ horizons, unlock their potential, and prepare them for the demands of a rapidly changing world. These schools’ instructional models, however, are often radically different from the traditional model students are accustomed to. As a result, schools need to focus on helping students adjust to new academic expectations and social experiences to ensure they do not get stuck between two drastically different models of education. I hope the findings and recommendations presented in these four blog posts can help schools address these concerns and allow their students to fully take advantage of the freedoms and opportunities afforded by their innovative programs.