School Culture that Puts Student Well-Being First

Topics: Early College High School, Vision and Culture

At early college high schools like Youngstown Rayen Early College High School and Akron Early College High School (ECHS), social-emotional supports and relationship development have been central to their approach from the start. At a recent convening, early college leaders from across Ohio and students from Youngstown Rayen Early College High School spent time discussing how current trends might shape the future of learning, including the rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens and young adults.

Here are six practices early college high schools like Akron and Youngstown are already using to create a culture that puts the well-being of students above everything else:

1. Build social-emotional learning into curriculum

Students at Akron Early College High School work alongside college students on the University of Akron’s campus and 90-95 percent graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree. Kelly Herold, assistant dean of the University of Akron’s College of Applied Science and Technology, credits much of this success to supports embedded in their curriculum.

“We don’t like to see anybody fail,” said Herold. “We all get knocked down; we all have bad days. But what does it mean to look forward and be positive?”

Starting freshman year, students are required to take seminar classes designed to help students manage life as a high school and college student. While time is spent helping students identify areas of interest, pick college courses and prepare for tests, these seminars mostly focus on helping students learn ways to take care of their physical and mental health and develop skills that will help them with life beyond the classroom. Topics covered in weekly classes throughout all four years at Akron ECHS include:

  • Healthy relationships
  • Healthy lifestyle – mental and physical
  • Positive mental attitude
  • Mindfulness
  • Stress relievers
  • Confidence
  • Seeking assistance
  • Focus
  • Kindness
  • Attitude of gratitude
  • Resiliency

Situated on The University of Akron’s campus, the Akron Early College High School has been empowering students since 2007 not only to earn substantial college credit, but also to defy expectations.
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2. Create discrete ways to seek out help

“Kids don’t want people to know they have a need,” said Aalissia Thomas, a Youngstown Rayen Early College High School student. “Then everyone starts talking. You can’t tell by looking at students what they are going through.”

To help students feel safe seeking help, Akron Early College High School, which has been designated as 100% free/reduced lunch, installed a food pantry fully funded by the University of Akron. It is open all the time for anyone who comes in to give or take food. And at Youngstown Rayen Early College High School, a student-created clothing closet is available for anyone who needs something to wear.

3. Focus on relationships and trust above everything else

“Our staff is very tight and good at building relationships with kids,” said Cheryl Connolly, principal of Akron Early College High School. “There is someone on the staff that is going to connect with the students on some level. They will alert us when they think a student needs help, and the person who they trust will try to have a discussion.”

Sometimes educators, counselors and advisors working with a specific student also realize that they may not be the best person to reach out.

“If you keep pushing, you may become the stress,” said William Peace, academic advisor at Youngstown Early College High School.

“You have to know what is going on at home,” said Thomas. “Ask why. There’s a reason and a rhyme to why I act this way. There’s a reason why we don’t connect.”

4. Go beyond college or career counseling and leverage community resources

At Akron Early College High School, students are supported by university staff members who serve as counselors, coaches and college advisors.

“A lot of the students hide in plain sight, if you are not being observant,” said Jennifer Austin, University of Akron project manager for Akron ECHS and licensed counselor. “There are days you feel very depleted because you are giving your all to make sure they are okay.”

When a student needs more support, Austin connects them to community resources such the university’s counseling center, peer mentors or pastoral counseling. Students also get opportunities to volunteer time at local social justice organizations such as rape crisis centers or homeless shelters.

“This helps kids see what it is like to give back and see places in the community where they could seek help,” said Herold.

5. Create spaces were students can destress and seek help

With added space provided by their recent move into a newly renovated building, Youngstown Rayen Early College High intentionally focused on creating areas for students to be together, get help from caring adults and destress, including:

  • An academic coaching space called “The Hub” where students can connect with staff members dedicated to helping early college students navigate their high school and college experience.
  • An 11th and 12th grade lounge so students who spend most of their time on Youngstown State University’s campus taking college courses have a space on the high school campus to rest and reconnect with each other.
  • A mindfulness center where students to learn ways to destress, practice yoga and sleep.

“When early college staff showed me that they cared, I knew it was for me,” said Jason Gilmore, a 2012 graduate of Youngstown Rayen Early College High School. “Early college was the start of my future.”

6. Let students lead

According to principal Monica Jones, after discovering that their peers need help with self-love, the student leadership team at Youngtown Rayen Early College High School made self-love boards to post messages of kindness throughout the building and created videos to lift up their voices and concern for each other.

“I believe kids can go the distance is someone believes in them,” said Jones.

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