Changing Student Outlooks on Education: Ohio High School Instills a Sense of Hope and Belonging

Topics: Education Equity, Vision and Culture

When asked to describe her school, Marysville TRI Academy senior Shelby Jackson uses the word “hope.”

Cultivating a sense of hope, belonging and self-awareness are central to TRI Academy’s mission, and aligns with recent research that identifies a clear parallel between strong social-emotional well-being and future success.

“A lot of us had lost hope because we were, not bad kids, but we weren’t very good in school,” said Jackson. “Whatever the case was, we were behind. But our teachers have given us a lot of hope for the future, not only for school, but hope in things we want to do when we’re older.”

TRI Academy is a prime example of a school where students who might have been left behind in a traditional environment are discovering their potential. The blended learning environment makes it possible for students to work ahead when they can, spend more time with subjects when they need to and take advantage of the resources and supports of the school’s dedicated staff.

Everyone has a voice at Marysville TRI Academy – even, and perhaps especially, those students who might’ve gone unheard in a traditional high school setting.

“We believe deeply in hearing from kids,” said Ashley Thompson, TRI Academy’s principal and the personalized learning coordinator for Marysville Exempted Village School District. Day-to-day behaviors for teachers and students elevate the importance of student voice, and the district uses the Student Experience Survey to maintain a pulse on student engagement. “In order for kids to learn and perform at their best, some things have to be intact: a sense of hope and belonging, a sense that they can do it, a growth mindset. If students feel they have your support, they’ll move mountains for you.”

And they are. Student-centered practices are taking hold across the district, and learners are experiencing an increased sense of hope and belonging as well as notable achievement gains in math and reading. Students at TRI Academy have seen some gains in reading and social studies, and the skills they’re building through a strong school and classroom culture are a sign of great things to come.

“We’re like family,” said Jacob Mullins, who graduated early from TRI Academy and who claims that without TRI Academy he wouldn’t have graduated at all. “Everybody’s part of a team here.”

Everyone has a voice at Marysville TRI Academy – even, and perhaps especially, those students who might’ve gone unheard in a traditional high school setting.

Students aren’t just sharing their voices – they’re sharing in decision-making.

One of the ways that TRI Academy gives students a voice and inspires hope is through a weekly meeting they call TRI Town Hall. The entire school, comprised of 65 students, certified teachers, the principal and the secretary, meets to share objectives for the week, make plans and raise any concerns.

“Everybody here is different,” said senior Luke McClurg. “The kids that have always been in the back and never had anything to do with school can pitch in to help. Everybody has an input in TRI Town Hall. They can throw out any idea they have and everybody will think about it. We’re just real close friends.”

From establishing school codes of conduct to designing selectives – semester-long passion projects at TRI Academy that are co-created between teachers and students – TRI Town Hall serves a critical role in creating community.

“Everyone has a voice,” Jackson said. “Teachers take our inputs very seriously.”

Jessica McClurg, Luke’s mother, credits TRI Academy with her son’s increased interest in school. Though his elementary school teachers were able to accommodate his ADHD, as he got older and struggled more, it became a challenge to motivate him.

“It was a fight every single day to get him to school. Without TRI Academy, I honestly don’t think he would have been able to graduate,” said Jessica McClurg. “The minute he turned 18 he would’ve dropped out. But the teachers at TRI Academy have been so encouraging; they’ve done wonders for boosting his confidence.”

Jessica McClurg explained that the credit recovery options and the ability to connect what he’s learning with things that interest him are invaluable for students like her son.

“He had so few credits going into his junior year. It’s been a complete 180 for him at TRI Academy,” Jessica McClurg said. “Whatever a student is interested in, the teachers try their best to incorporate that so students can get their credits and graduate.”

90 percent of TRI Academy’s students feel engaged according to recent survey data, and that number correlates with a rising graduation rate among students who were overwhelmingly at-risk of dropping out or not graduating on time. And for Thompson, they’re graduating ready for a future that will look very different.

“We want our graduates to know how to listen and value others’ voices, to be able to collaborate, empathize and understand,” said Thompson. “Our kids are entering the career field with a set of skills that will allow them to be adaptable in an ever-changing and accelerating future; they need to know themselves with more intention than they have in the past. We’re helping them to believe in who they are and what they are.”

Everyone has a voice at Marysville TRI Academy – even, and perhaps especially, those students who might’ve gone unheard in a traditional high school setting.

Supporting conflict resolution and social-emotional health.

TRI Academy students still struggle, but it’s productive.

“I used to get in trouble for verbal arguments, for fights, but throughout the time I’ve been here, my teachers have calmed me down,” said Luke McClurg. “They’ve given me a new outlook on fighting. It’s not worth the trouble. They don’t stop us from being angry, but they help us think about what happened and have a conversation with us. I’ve been able to share personal things with the teachers here. I can trust them.”

Jackson has had similar experiences.

“I feel like the teachers have made me realize that fighting wasn’t worth my time and energy,” said Jackson, citing a specific incident last year where, instead of being given a detention or expelled as she might’ve been in a traditional setting, she had a conversation with her teachers and talked through consequences. She signed an agreement that fighting again meant she risked being removed from school.

“The way my teachers talk to me makes me understand what they’re trying to help me with,” Jackson said.

The feeling of hopefulness at TRI Academy extends to parents like Jessica McClurg, too.

“Teachers don’t just call you when your kid is doing something they shouldn’t be doing. I’ve gotten phone calls where they’re just telling me he’s doing a good job and they’re proud of him,” said Jessica McClurg. “That’s unheard of. I’ve never had a teacher call me and tell me that my kid was doing well and they just wanted to call me and let me know. That’s pretty special.”

Everyone has a voice at Marysville TRI Academy – even, and perhaps especially, those students who might’ve gone unheard in a traditional high school setting.

Preparing for the future of their choice.

“Being here has definitely helped me have a different outlook on life and education,” said Jackson, who after a year at TRI Academy is considering college for the first time. After she graduates, she plans to move to Michigan where she’ll enroll in online courses and work part-time. Luke McClurg is also considering college.

“This is the first time he’s talked about going on to college,” said Jessica McClurg, citing her son’s recent interest in a welding program at Marion Technical College. TRI Academy teachers work with students to explore post-secondary options and provide help with resumes for those students like Mullins who are interested in pursuing skilled work.

“Since I’ve gotten out of school I’ve gotten a new job working 40 plus hours a week,” said Mullins, who came to TRI Academy having completed three-quarters of his junior year and worked ahead to graduate early to begin working. “I’m saving up for a car and working to get my license back so I can be ready to turn 18.”

Thompson highlights creating opportunities for her students to voice their hopes for the future as a driving force for everyone at TRI Academy.

“Each of our students has an authentic story,” Thompson said. “And many of us, as educators, believe in our students. But do they believe in themselves? Encouraging students to cultivate a sense of hope, to foster their sense of self, to strengthen their confidence to tackle challenges – that’s what we’re here to do. When teachers and students share hope in a common goal, that’s when the magic can happen.”

For Luke McClurg, his experience has changed his whole outlook on his education.

“I wouldn’t have graduated. I was miserable at my old high school,” said Luke McClurg. “The teachers at TRI Academy wanted to make this school, wanted to improve kids’ credits and help them graduate. It’s been amazing. That’s all I can say.”

When Marysville Exempted Village School District set out to meet the needs of every student in their district through personalized learning, they had to begin with a vision – and they knew they couldn’t do it alone.