How do you build a positive school culture? At one middle school, students and staff are finding the answers together

By Sarah Earle

Monica Gemetti, Assistant Principal at Bow Memorial Middle School, center, talks with students and staff during a student leadership meeting. Photo by Sarah Earle.

Once a month at Bow Memorial Middle School, a group of student leaders and school staff meet to focus on building community. The goal: to create a solid foundation for all students to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. The key: open and honest conversation.

At a recent meeting, the conversation started small. Assembled in a semi-circle in the music room, a box of donut holes making the rounds, and the sounds of a trumpet rhapsodizing from the adjoining room, staff members surveyed students about a holiday event they’d planned together. Skittles and M&Ms, they observed, were far more popular than hard candies for decorating gingerbread houses.

Slowly, the discussion grew more in-depth, probing at what went well and what didn’t during the event, what could or should have been different, and whether they wanted to do it again. Eventually, the conversation turned toward an issue the school, like many schools, has been experiencing amidst widespread staffing shortages – overworked custodial staff – and how best to address it.

“The focus is on creating a sense of belonging,” said Assistant Principal Monica Gemetti, who is leading the school’s MTSS-B (Multi-Tiered Systems of Support for Behavioral Health and Wellness) work. “It’s been awesome to provide leadership roles for the kids.”

The MTSS-B framework is designed to provide a comprehensive set of social, emotional, and behavioral supports to ensure all students can fully engage in learning. It includes three tiers: a foundation of universal supports, a layer of targeted supports, and a layer of individualized services.

Educators are rightly focused on reaching the students who are struggling socially and emotionally, but getting the foundation piece right is also critical, Gemetti said. “I think the biggest push for us as a school this year has been to build a positive culture and community through celebrating core values,” she said. “It’s really gotten everybody on the same page.”

The 16 students on the leadership committee are charged with helping to plan four school-wide events throughout the school year. School staff work with them to shape and implement their ideas and then reflect on the outcomes. 

These reflection periods are designed to solicit honest feedback: 

“I feel like it was fun, but it would have been more fun … spice it up a little,” one student said. 

“There wasn’t enough time for the gingerbread activity,” said another. 

“The clues [for one of the games] should have been harder,” added another.

Bow Middle School students discuss school issues at a recent leadership committee meeting.
Photo by Sarah Earle.

Students in the leadership group also help tackle some of the issues that arise in the classroom. Nominated by their grade-level teachers, the student leaders aren’t necessarily the most outspoken or highest-achieving kids in the school. By taking ownership of real-world issues, they gain confidence while also developing solutions that can take hold with their peers. 

As talk turned from the holiday celebration to the custodian shortage, students were quick to offer input. 

“It would be great if we could encourage students to think of ways to take care of your own spaces,” 8th-grade history teacher Seth Pingree told the students. “How can we encourage those behaviors without just being nags?’

“I’m just going to admit it, it’s hard to get things into our heads,” one student said, adding that maybe students could each pick a certain item to be in charge of each day. 

“I’d just like to mention the lack of garbage cans in our hallways,” another student pointed out. 

A proposal for a clean-up competition elicited lots of head nods. 

As students grow more comfortable in their leadership roles, their ideas will start to take root, Gemetti explained. “We’re starting to have students in that role take it back to their grade level,” she said. “There’s definitely been some really good leadership that’s emerged.”

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