Building Connections

Building Connections

Building Connections

Size of school doesn’t stand in the way of caring
Kentucky School Advocate
October 2015
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
It was the week before mid-terms and sophomore English teacher Erin Cope studied her computer screen, paging through assignments and grades in each of the classes taken by the student who was anxiously watching behind her.

"You need to talk to your teacher this week," Cope said as she spotted missing assignments in one of the classes.

Cope was working with the student in a program called Connections that has helped transform the culture at George Rogers Clark High School in Clark County.

Connections was born three years ago when the high school moved to a new building. School leaders decided it was a good time to roll out changes.

George Rogers Clark High School English teacher Erin Cope and student Nancy Crawford look over Crawford’s class records in Connections class.

"We knew we had kids who were hurting, falling through the cracks," said Eric Osborn, the school’s college and career readiness and assessment coordinator, who was a counselor at that time.

Besides Connections, the school implemented intervention programs and a unique class schedule in an ultimately successful effort to move it out of focus/needs improvement status. But Principal David Bolen said Connections, which places groups of students with a teacher who meets with them three times weekly, was "one of the key pieces" in the school’s transformation plan and in improving its culture.

"I say that because I think it put the focus back on us helping the kid, being there for the kid, and I think that is something GRC had lost," Bolen said. Now, he added, "kids understand that people care about them."

The size of GRC, with an enrollment of 1,650 and 100 faculty, might seem to work against establishing closer relationships among students and teachers, but Osborn said he thinks the program would work in any school.

"It gives every child an adult person in his or her life with whom to connect, if something is going on at home or just the adolescent issues that are so prevalent in high school," said longtime Clark County school board member Judy Hicks.

In Connections, each teacher meets with a group of 20 students – five from each grade level – at midday on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for 20 minutes. The school’s four counselors also share two groups of students.

The time is used to review school announcements, monitor individual student academic progress, hold team-building activities, provide encouragement and cover special topics.

"I like to try to incorporate meaningful and purposeful activities. Not just things to occupy time, but things that are going to help actually build connections among our student body," said Cope, who coordinates and plans activities for the program school-wide.

The format is a good way to track students to make sure they are college and career ready and to develop their individual learning plans, Osborn said, while Hicks noted that the sessions also can be used to make students aware of clubs and other academic opportunities, such as Governor’s Scholars.

"With teachers being able to have a core group of no more than 20, 21 students, it really helps with accountability, because they know at every mid-term and every nine weeks that I’m going to be looking at their grades," Cope said. "They see that you care. If no one at home is holding them accountable, or no one else is holding them accountable, that someone here is."

The trust the program builds also encourages students with personal problems to seek help from or confide in their teacher, Cope said.

The matches between teachers and students are not random. As freshmen, students are asked to list six teachers they would prefer as their Connections teacher – those lists are crunched and run by teachers before being finalized. Students have the option of switching Connections teachers as they progress through the high school.

The mix of grade levels in each Connections class "challenges seniors to be leaders and mentors" to younger students, Osborn said.

The program has evolved since its inception that started with 30-minute classes twice weekly. A few more homogenous groups have formed; for example, the ROTC advisor’s group comprises cadets, and co-op students are in a group with the co-op teacher.

The program also has parental and community involvement components. The Connections teacher acts as the contact between the school and the parent. The student groups carry out community service projects, such as collecting items for the county’s food bank. This year, GRC is starting Cardinals Care, which will focus on a different community outreach each month, giving students another vehicle for service.

Bolen said the biggest factor in making Connections successful is teacher buy-in. He and Osborn said Cope, in sharing with the faculty her own experiences growing up, was key to that when the program was launched. Bolen estimated that he now has buy-in from 80 percent of his faculty.

The principal said administrators will continue to look for ways to add to the program, possibly incorporating more college-focused activities and a mentorship component.
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