A Case Study on Upsides: How a High School Merger Improved Academics, Climate, and Funding opportunities
This post is about my experience with a school district’s merger of two well-established community high schools within a city school district, and how the actual merger and its repercussions demonstrate upsides to school and community issues that may at first seem highly volatile, and the role community partners can play in helping to focus on these opportunities.
This urban community had two high schools within the city for decades. Over time, the schools developed into strong rivals in athletics and in other areas. This rivalry at times could become intense. About 12 years ago, the decision was made to build a new high-tech high school large enough to include all high school students throughout the district. This would result in closing both of the old high schools. The district had some concerns about the potential for discord when students from the two high schools would meet in the new building for the first time after spending so long as intense rivals.
At this point, various partners with the district, including Ciurczak & Company, Inc. and Future Schools Network, Inc., suggested that the district support the creation of a team of high school students from each high school to guide the merger from the students’ perspective. Extensive resources were invested in the physical merger of the two schools, and this project represented an investment into the social elements of the merger.
These teams of students would receive specialized training and support in learning more about group dynamics and leadership. They would then be empowered to decide their own approach to situations surrounding the merger of the two high schools. This was designed to build support and excitement over the course of the year for the merger itself, the construction of the high school (which was ongoing for a few years and opening in the next September), to support the idea that it was a positive community development, to keep it peaceful, and to keep the larger community informed of progress toward the successful opening of the new high school. The teams were provided with immediate access to administration officials so that basic questions could be answered quickly and directly.
Students were chosen to be on the “merger teams” by school staff at each high school to represent broad and varied groups of students. Athletes, honor students, student government members, special education students, musicians, skateboarders, frequently suspended students, and others were included in the groups. These students did not all know each other and they were not all friends with each other. The goal for having students from these different groups was to ensure virtually every student group felt as though this student merger team, in some way, represented them.
The student teams met monthly for about three months at their own high school for daylong leadership and teambuilding trainings, led by Future Leaders Network trainer Bob James. He coached the student teams at their home schools, engaging the students in various activities and exercises to develop leadership, group interaction, and creative problem solving skills.
Both teams met each other in one high school after about three meetings in their own schools to get to know each other, talk about the merger, and develop their plan for merging schools successfully. At the meeting, and in subsequent meetings, the students created and executed a thorough and complex merger plan. Its key elements included:
- naming themselves the “Power of One” and then no longer referring to their high school of origin by name;
- gathering yet unanswered high school and eighth grade student questions about the merger and publishing administration answers on posters displayed prominently in both high schools and the middle schools;
- holding presentations and question and answer informational sessions led by Power of One team members specifically designed to include a member from both high schools for all eighth grade students on what to expect in ninth grade;
- hosting a large group meeting of all student activity, sports, and club officers at a picnic;
- printing and distributing newsletters in both high schools and all three middle schools with articles about the merger and a countdown on the number of days left until the merger;
- providing tours to the community of the new high school from Power of One teams during the community Open House immediately before the grand opening of the new high school.
As a result of this activity, along with the overall community’s support, the merger occurred as planned, free of any fights or disturbance that could be traced to the old rivalry. Power of One was widely credited, in the media and the community, for this success.
The Power of One remained together, and replenished its membership each year. Their continued activism on behalf of a student voice helped contribute to the district in many additional ways over the course of several years.
For example, in 2002-2003, the district used information gathered from student focus groups and the Student Center, as well as other sources, to apply for two major federal grants. The grants were designed to expand the Student Center and to add some additional support services in elementary schools. These grants were the Safe Schools-Healthy Students Initiative (SS/HS) and the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling grant. Both grants were awarded to the district and lasted four years. These grants allowed the district to begin improvement initiatives in several new and important areas, including school safety, mental health, violence reduction, educational reform, and early childhood support services. Results from these grants helped lead to a second successful Elementary and Secondary School Counseling grant proposal, as well as other grants, that aided in school improvement.
The outcome from these grants continues to influence the district and its ability to obtain additional funding sources to this day. One example is the focus on early childhood support services funded through the SS/HS grant. This grant led to several additional grants supporting increased interventions with very young students, using model programs, to help avoid special education placements. These were funded by the NYS Education Department and local foundations. Results from the key elements in all of these grants included many issues initially uncovered in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) survey, and the student-run focus groups, that were conducted as part of the SS/HS grant.
Bottom line: There can be many positive, unintended consequences in projects that you simply cannot imagine while they are occurring. Staying open to those possibilities and always thinking of matching needs with opportunities can provide tremendous results!