Building a Strong Community

STUDENTS LEARN TO VALUE THEMSELVES, EACH OTHER, AND THE COMMUNITY; STUDENTS JOIN ADULTS IN CREATING A SOCIALLY AND EMOTIONALLY SAFE ENVIRONMENT MARKED BY PRINCIPLED AND ETHICAL BEHAVIOR.

7th graders drew messages about our school's virtues on the sidewalk at the start of the year, along with messages welcoming seniors backj from their trip to Star Island.

At Four Rivers,students learn to value themselves, each other, and the community; students join adults in creating a socially and emotionally safe environment marked by principled and ethical behavior, as well as self-awareness and awareness of others. From the very beginning, the founding faculty and leaders at Four Rivers worked to ensure that all students who attended our school would be respected and cared for and would also respect and care for themselves, other students and the values of our community. The founding group identified six character virtues - perseverance, respect, responsibility, courage, compassion and integrity - that help to inspire and guide the actions of adults and students at Four Rivers. In classes, in crew and as part of student-led conferences, students reflect on themselves and their development as students and as people. At community meetings, teachers and students offer appreciations and amends to one another and give Polaris awards to members of the community whose expression of one, or any combination of, the school's virtue rises to a particularly note-worthy level. Students also are invited to take initiative and act on ideas to improve, strengthen and build community. For example, one student rallied others to join her in launching 50 Days of Kindness.

Community meeting culminating 50 Days of Kindness. Students offer appreciations to one another

During a series of alumni interviews, former students were asked to reflect on their experiences at the school and to consider whether or not our character virtues matter and if, from the vantage point of life beyond high school, they thought our focus on character had made a difference to them. Here is the first of two interviews that were representative of the most common responses. And here is the second.

We also recently conducted a survey of alumni, asking them to share their perceptions of how their time at Four Rivers influenced them in their development as ethical people. Here are the results:

One way the staff and teachers work together to create a warm and emotionally safe environment for students is through support systems and discipline practices. Students who are struggling are identified at our weekly "kid meetings." Each division, along with the Academic Support Director, the Head of School, and the School Psychologist, meets for an hour to discuss any student who is having trouble academically, socially, emotionally, or in physical health. The team identifies next steps, and advisors take the lead in communicating with students and families. We offer student success plans that are developed collaboratively with students in a process that encourages them to articulate what helps and what doesn't, and defines clear roles and responsibilities for teachers and kids alike. We have a Take A Break procedure to help students who have emotional difficulties in classes. During a recent alumni interview, one of our former students shared her experience of support and safety at Four Rivers.

The teacher and school practices described above, along with our approach to discipline, have led to improvemnts in student behavior and a reduction in disciplinary issues, as shown in the data below.

This graph shows a significant decline over time in disciplinary incidents with students that resulted in In-school suspensions (ISS) and out-of-school suspensions (OSS)

Our discipline practices are designed to engage students in thinking about their behavior, and to reflect on positive ways to deal with problems and how to make amends for injury or insult to others. For example, a student drew a long pencil mark down the wall in the stairwell. Instead of asking around to find out who did it, at community meeting, we did two things. First, we asked students for a show of hands: who would be angry if, just as they were getting ready to leave at the end of the school day, we informed them the day was being extended by an hour? Every hand went up. Next, we projected a picture of Tina, our janitor, and informed them that it was her job to clean the walls; whoever made that long pencil mark had added an hour to her shift, but she wouldn't know that until she showed up for work. We had all just unanimously stated that it's unfair to suddenly add an hour to someone's workday, and thus it was only fair that Tina not have to clean the wall. We never asked who did it; we asked who was going to help rectify the problem. Four 9th grade boys volunteered to clean the wall (and, in the end, the whole stairwell!). It was a lesson that stuck: two years later, pencil maks again appeared in a stairwell and a junior brought it to the attention of the community during community meeting before any of the adults noticed. He reminded us that we needed to take care of it to spare unfairness to Tina, and three sophmores volunteered to do the work. Students recognize that the quality of our school environment is as much in their hands as it is in those of the adults. Working together to take care of each other and our buildings and grounds contributes to the positive culture at the school.

In both formal and informal surveys, students at Four Rivers describe building positive and warm relationships with their teachers and the adults in the school. The most common response students offer when asked about what they like about Four Rivers is: the teachers! This has been true for years - really, since the beginning! The quantitative data, the alumni reflections, students reports on their sense of safety and belonging, staff and teacher practices designed to build a safe and ethical school culture, and anecdotes of how students step up to act on behalf of others are evidence we think support the claim that students learn to value themselves an deach other and behave in principled, ethical ways.

Together, everyone makes it to the top of a steep climb!

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