“Student achievement becomes stale without student engagement!”
I have the privilege of working with the Director of Student Life at Latin College Prep, Anastacia Johnson, in Metro Atlanta. She provides amazing support and resources through her department that truly helps build our vision of increasing student achievement at LCP. Attendance and engagement are needs improvement areas across the Nation regarding school performance. I have seen first hand how Anastacia programs have helped prepare our students for high school and beyond. Student achievement isn’t simply being engaged academically but holistically. Our Student Life Department’s mission is to do just that; to grow scholars holistically into well-rounded citizens. Check out her views on how to help schools and students to get their life through student engagement!
I chose education as my profession to ensure that one day all students will have access to opportunities and upward mobility. I am currently working as the Director of Student Life at Latin College Preparatory Charter School where I design, implement and manage both academic and non-academic programs. My aim is to continue working with high need populations by helping students, teachers and families end educational inequity and meet ambitious goals for student achievement.
What inspired you to work in student life?
My commitment to working to close the opportunity gap was sparked while I was a student at Spelman College. I became curious about the social and cognitive well-being of children while taking an Introduction to Psychology course. During my breaks, I worked as an intern at summer learning programs in two of the poorest neighborhoods in their respective states; the first in East Palo Alto, California and the second in Reynoldstown in Atlanta, Georgia. After nearly seven years of teaching and leading both domestically and internationally my intention has been to direct my skills and efforts toward building pathways for students to get to and through college. I still hold a long-standing commitment for leading students in developing civic engagement, personal maturity, academic achievement and leadership capacity.
How does student life impact student achievement
As Director of Student Life, my purpose is to create and curate experiences where scholars grow as leaders in school and in the community. My role is evolving to also include civic engagement opportunities, social emotional learning, restorative justice and positive culture building for faculty as well as scholars. The primary tools that I currently employ to fulfill this purpose are:
- Character Education
- Field Studies (aligned with Academic Outcomes)
- College and & Career Readiness Programs
- Clubs and Student Activities
Student Life directly impacts student achievement in that it equips scholars with the internal bandwidth, mental fortitude and relational capital to pursue and sustain academic success. Twenty-first century students, namely those from “at-promise” populations, must contend with unique challenges such as financial hardship, digital illiteracy and emotional trauma, all of which deeply impact their ability to succeed as scholars. Exposing students to both experiences and people who offer insight into how to navigate these challenges is paramount in their overall success.
Why is character education needed in schools?
Modern research offers extensive evidence proving excessive suspension and expulsion of students, namely black and brown boys, overwhelmingly leads them toward increased dropout rates and ultimately, the criminal justice system. Though most school leaders and teachers are aware of the school-to-prison pipeline, too few make intentional adjustments to the academic program to include character education. How can we expect our scholars to know that one plus one equals two unless they are explicitly taught mathematical language. In the same vein, how can we expect our scholars to know how to use inclusive language, practice mindfulness and avoid/resolve conflict unless they are directly instructed on how to do so. Character education is necessary in schools because it offers scholars the tools navigate interpersonal relationships, personal challenges and conflicts.
Are educational field trips really important to the learning experience?
It is a widely accepted fact that learning takes place through multiple intelligences and several styles. Genius is no longer a uniform concept that presents itself unilaterally. Not only that, most people utilize more than one intelligence and learning style at any given time. This fact is the primary motivation behind creating field studies that align with current academic objectives. Unlike traditional field trips, where scholars venture out to a fun place that may or may not hold a meaningful connection to their current learning goals, field studies (at their best) are pre-planned and aligned to educational outcomes. As children, we observe our parents drive cars safely from the comfort of the backseat. As teenagers we take a driver’s education course and practice, then we are given a driver’s permit and ultimately the license to drive alone. Observation, no matter how close, and study are insufficient in ensuring that new drivers are adequately prepared to get on the road. Only real-time practice, success and failure gives the driver and those that share the road with her, the confidence to trust what she has learned. Similarly, twenty-first century education must include opportunities for students to make connections between what they have learned and real-world applications of such knowledge. Field studies offer such opportunities.
Do faculty and staff play a role in building student activities? How can this help improve student discipline?
Academic rigor and intensity are at an all time high as districts and schools strive to prepare scholars for globalization. Students, faculty and staff need the chance to relieve stress and remember each other’s humanity. Student activities and clubs provide an ideal opportunity for students, faculty and staff to share common interests and learn more about one another outside of an intense academic environment. When students, faculty and staff building relationships through student activities, the impact on school culture and discipline is astounding. Scholars tend to respect and follow adults they trust; and that trust is often cultivated on the court, in the field, before school and after school.
In what ways does student leadership help improve student’s engagement in the school?
When leading change in any environment, two of the primary objectives are to craft a shared-vision and create buy-in for that vision. Too often, decisions are made in schools without the continued input of those that will be most directly impacted by those choices: the students. It is important, therefore, to not only to include students in the strategic direction of a school but to allow them to lead the creation and implementation of the strategy. School teachers and leaders make a grave mistake when they underestimate and even stifle student innovation because of age, education and experience biases. Student leadership improves positive culture and engagement in schools by allowing scholars to create the experiences they want, champion the changes they want and lead the innovation they want. Teachers and leaders would do better to take on the role of facilitator rather than dictator, advisor rather than leader in this context. If students are to buy-in to academic and social expectations in a school, they must have some “skin in the game”. That skin often shows up in the form of ideas (both plausible and implausible). If we are to cultivate a generation of autonomous and independent future-leaders, we must allow them to experiment, win and lose in the environment specifically crafted for learning: their schools.
What tips do you have for schools building student life departments?
- Create a shared-vision for student life with all stakeholders.
- Resist the temptation to default to traditional student activities only.
- Allow for innovation in the programs that are created and curated for student life.
- Align field studies and in-school programs with academic and culture goals.
- Expose scholars to as many difficult kinds of people and programs as possible.
- Build student life and character education into the school day.
- Esteem character education in the same regard as academic education.
How does counseling services play in the student life department? Why is family engagement a key support to this work?
It is not uncommon for students from “at-promise” communities to experience trauma, anxiety and depression. Even responsible adults struggle to balance obligations and stressors when traumatic events interrupt normal life. Students who experience chronic trauma without the benefit of a fully matured self-management system are particularly at risk for trauma impacting their academic performance and interpersonal relationships. Adolescents have a difficult time managing their responses to external stimuli and controlling their impulses; they need help mitigating circumstances. School counselors, advocates, mentors and other allies are essential to the success of all students, namely those who are navigating crippling disadvantages such as poverty. Schools, counselors and families must work together to create programs and solutions that solve individuals challenges that students face. Without counseling and family engagement, students are placed at an extreme disadvantage. Unfortunately, adolescents lack the resources and network to advocate for themselves effectively. They need adult advocates such as their parents, teachers and counselors to help them work through personal, social and academic problems and build self-efficacy.