New Designs for School
New Designs for School

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After a visit to a high school in Maine, these five approaches stand out as essential to creating a school culture that supports academic success, strong attendance, and a sense of belonging.

You know you're at a special school when the principal says that "being with the kids is the best part!” That’s exactly what Casco Bay High School Principal Derek Pierce said (with a big smile on his face) during a welcome dinner at an NGLC Learning Excursion to Casco Bay High School (CBHS) this past November. I would see in the days ahead that this sentiment permeated the design and culture at CBHS, a district school in Portland, Maine. Relationships are one of the core values articulated by CBHS in their Instructional Compass. It was thrilling to see how deeply they meant this.

graphic of Instructional Compass

As a restorative practitioner, a concept that I hold dear is the 80/20 rule. Per the International Institute for Restorative Practices, this guideline maintains that 80 percent of restorative practices work should be proactive: building relationships and community. Only 20 percent of restorative practices work is meant to be reactive, when harm has occurred. I also know that that 80 percent is hard to do. I got to see a school where they are doing this well, whether they would label it that way or not. I have thought a lot since my visit to CBHS about my own work and ways that my school can strengthen our ties. I’ve organized my thinking about 5 key concepts taken from my CBHS visit and hope they will help you as we all continue to work on growing school cultures that are supportive of academic success, strong attendance, and a sense of belonging—all areas that, the research tells us, can be impacted by caring relationships.

1. When Advisory Becomes a Crew

CBHS has a nationally-recognized primary person model, which I first learned about last year when reading a Springpoint report on model advisory programs. At my own school, Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BART) in Adams, Massachusetts, we have tweaked and reiterated our advisory program a few times over the years, including a more significant adjustment of curriculum this year. And yet, it still feels like we’re not getting it completely right as a lever for building strong relationships. After visiting CBHS, I feel closer to some answers. Here are some of the elements of CBHS Crew that stood out to me (a few of which I elaborate on elsewhere in this post):

  • Make it #1: The structure and logistics of crew help establish its importance at CBHS: Crew meets daily and nearly every staff member has a crew, including the principal. Guidance counselor and founding staff member Michael Hale also told us during our visit that “if advisory/crew isn’t #1 at your school, it won’t be what you want it to be.”
  • Admins in the Sandbox: Nearly every staff member at CBHS has a crew. It isn’t only teachers who have one. All of the administrators who we met during our visit have their own crew and I got the impression that they love this part of their job. This commitment helps establish the importance of crew for all staff and students.
  • Looped Cohorts: Crew cohorts are looped. Students stay together through all four years. They have years to develop a culture and to bond. And then, powerfully, they graduate together, in crew groups.
  • Quests: Freshmen and seniors go on four-day, three-night outdoor adventures in which they work closely with their crewbies to navigate challenges and reflect, in writing, on their experiences. This is just one of many crew-based traditions at CBHS.
Outdoor experiential learning
  • Crew = Family: Crew is truly treated like a family within the school and staff are empowered to treat it that way. Staff are hired with these competencies in mind. In a document providing guidance to staff on how to connect with and support crewbies who might be struggling, you can see suggestions like, “Call your crewbie! Check in—not about school—just about life” and, “Visit them at work or at a game… not to talk, just to show your face and buy some fries.”

In his workshop on the topic of crew, Michael Hale shared with our visiting teams something that hit me at first as grim, but then bloomed into hope as I sat with it: “It will take seven years to create a robust advisory. CBHS has one, but they didn’t get there overnight. Creating a culture shift takes time and intentional design. For those of us who are building new or redesigned primary person models in our own schools, this can give us hope.

How could your school work toward making advisory your #1 priority? What would change if you did? Do administrators at your school have advisories? If not, could they jump into someone else’s advisory for the remainder of this year as an aunt/uncle/pibling? What moves will help send a message that advisory matters at your school?

2. Schedule as a Moral Document

I recently heard a colleague state that a school has two moral documents—their budget and their schedule. CBHS makes their value of relationships plain in their master schedule. Crew meets every day for 30 minutes.

Daily Schedule for Students

On Monday, this meeting is early in the day, so that a crew can start their week together. On Friday, crewbies end their week together in the last period of the day. And, most striking to me, as I had not seen these in any other schools before: there is a block midday on Wednesdays called “crew lunch.” It’s exactly as it sounds—scheduled time for these small groups to have an intentional family meal each week. And it’s not just crew where the value of relationships shows up in the master schedule. For example, CBHS has an all-school meeting on Wednesdays to celebrate their community, support each other, and address key issues.

If you look at CBHS’s schedule and ask what this institution values, relationships would be among the first answers.

I’d encourage you to stop here and ask yourself, as I did after this learning excursion: Looking at my own school’s master schedule…what does it appear that we value?

3. Relationships Start with Staff

It was easy to see the connectedness and affection amongst the staff members who we spent time with at CBHS in the way they spoke to, spoke of, and smiled at each other. At one point, one of the staff we met was sharing an anecdote about Derek Pierce, the principal, and referred to him as “that dear man.” That language choice, the idea of holding a colleague dear, was so striking to me.

You’ll notice that there is an early release on Wednesdays in this master schedule. That allows time for CBHS staff to collaborate and plan together. Teachers work in pairs to devise and teach “intensives,” special weeklong courses offered two times each year on topics that might be outside of what they normally get to cover, such as “Learn to Swim,” “Podcasting,” and “Snowshoe Overnight.” Before the year begins, CBHS staff engage in a three-day “Summer Institute” where they work together to establish broad-stroked themes and goals for the year ahead. But take a look at these photos from the 2023 Summer Institute…do they look like PD to you? Or summer camp? I have been asking myself: why can’t we have both? Let’s do the work while building the relationships. Curriculum alignment guides AND s’mores. Why not?

joyful professional learning

Think about the intentional practices that your school uses to build relationships amongst staff members. What could be added to PD time to allow staff members to connect, laugh, and experience joy together?

4. A Third Moral Document: The Floor Plan

I have been thinking, since this visit, about how in addition to the budget and schedule, a school’s floor plan is also a moral document. What do we commit our square feet to? How are they laid out? Where are students allowed to be? Is there space for collaboration?

At CBHS, two particular details about the floor plan stood out to me. I should note: this is not a new building. And it was not built with CBHS in mind. But they have made it work for them, including the following ways to highlight their values through the use of space:

  • The Great Space: This is a large, carpeted, comfortable space that feels like the clear center of the action at CBHS. There is a small stage at one end and various tables, chairs, upholstered cubes, and curtains throughout to facilitate division of the large space as needed. It is used for community meetings, celebrations, and many special traditions that bring the CBHS community together. It’s not an auditorium and it’s not a cafegymatorium. It's more. And it is underscored as such by the name—a great room is a key space in a home, combining the living and dining rooms, that serves as the center of family life.
  • The Principal’s Office: Lining the walls of part of the Great Space are some administrative offices. Among them, the principal’s office, with windows that open out into the center of the room. The principal is positioned centrally in community space, easily visible to anyone. Moreover, the office is, by design of its layout, entirely approachable. There is no antechamber or check-in desk, no administrative assistant communicating with folks before they approach. The principal is right there, entirely accessible to anyone who walks by.

Take out your school’s floor plan. Ask yourself these questions: What is prioritized here? What is deprioritized? How do these priorities reflect or contradict our values as an institution?

5. Circle Up

In his handbook on using Open Space Technology, a method of self-organizing to transform organizational practice and culture, Harrison Owen states that “The circle is the fundamental geometry of human connection.” In a circle, we face each other. We are accountable to each other. We give everyone our attention and we get to have everyone’s attention. And yet, how have we conventionally organized learning spaces for young people? In rows. Separated. Facing a teacher and not each other.

In our time at CBHS, we were repeatedly invited to sit or stand in a circle to explore content together. It was no accident; many of the classrooms were also set up this way, in horseshoes or circles. When I visited a ninth grade crew, the group reassembled the more conventional classroom setup into a circle as their first order of business. Even the t-shirts available for purchase from the school’s Parent Advisory Group make a claim regarding the value of this practice, reading “Casco Bay High School – Circling Up Since 2005”.

In restorative practices—the study of relationships and community—relationship building is nearly always done in a circle. If we want to connect, we need to face each other.

What are some spaces in your day, in your work, in your school where people could be seated in a circle on a regular basis?

For a school to be restorative, we need to make similar levels of investment in relationship building to what I saw at CBHS. Without attention to the 80 percent, the restorative interventions when harm has occurred will not be nearly as effective. After all, we need something there to repair. CBHS has it. And while it wasn’t a focus during our short visit, I did learn a bit about their Community Council from one of our student tour guides. According to the CBHS Family Guide, the Council “is composed of adult advisors and student volunteers who are trained to help community members take responsibility when they have done something wrong, and repair the harm that’s been done. It is designed to be a space to heal from harm. The ultimate aim is to teach rather than punish.”

I came back from this trip inspired and loaded with ideas to strengthen the relationship-building practices at my own school, primarily through changes to advisory. I’m armed with new understanding about how schools can prioritize relationship building as well as helpful validation of some of my core beliefs. In the months ahead, as we revise BART’s master schedule and set new goals for the 2024-2025 school year, I know that we can strengthen our 80 percent, because I have seen what that can look like.

I was able to get to work on this the very next day within my own student-facing work. I had been a substitute for an advisory since the start of the year due to difficulty filling a staff position. I thought of the advisory that I had been subbing for and how much joy I had gotten from working with them. I knew that it was time to commit to this advisory. I need to be in the sandbox. I want to be in the sandbox.

I returned to my advisory after my trip to Portland and told them about this plan. They were excited. One of them said, “So you finally gave in?” and smiled. I asked them if they were ready to be the best advisory in the school. They were all in. We went to work planning how we would get there. Our first move: our own little Advisorysgiving. The following week, we gathered up on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break. We all sat around a round table and broke bread together, connecting, laughing at each other’s antics, and reflecting on the experience we were sharing. That very hour, they started planning a holiday gift exchange.

Just this week, one of my students was speaking during advisory about a desire to go camping this summer. I thought of the Quests at CBHS, and how I’d love to do one with my students. Without the resources for that at my fingertips, I focused instead on what I can do right now. What I can do, and what we started brainstorming, was a mock campout in our classroom during our advisory block. I said I’d bring in my kids’ toy camping sets from home, which include tents and a plastic campfire that crackles and glows. The student next to me exclaimed, “We can eat raw s’mores!” We’ll bring sleeping bags, we’ll tell stories, we’ll pretend to look at the stars. We’ll aim for them moving forward as we continue to grow a school that prioritizes connection.

We’ll build relationships.

We’ll build community.

All images courtesy of Casco Bay High School.

Kate Merrigan headshot

Kate Merrigan

Director of Student + Community Development, Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BART)

Kate Merrigan is the director of student and community development at Berkshire Arts & Technology Charter Public School (BART) in Adams, Massachusetts, where she organizes people and resources to increase sense of belonging and student success. Kate specializes in restorative practices—particularly circle practice—and has been trained as a trainer by the International Institute for Restorative Practices. She is also a longtime volunteer with the New Hampshire Teen Institute who thinks of herself first and foremost as a camp counselor.