A new focus at Nooksack Valley High School started with a survey. Staff found that students often didn't see how school prepared them for life beyond NVHS. And that simply wasn't how high school staff wanted it to be.
"We are taking on this idea of building relevance and connection to things in school with things students have in life," says Collin Buckley, NVHS principal.
The connection-making at NVHS starts with a fresh focus in each classroom, includes regularly checking in with students and even features new intentionality when it comes to planning high school classes.
Buckley says the first step was ensuring students felt connected to teachers. Every student takes a simple survey in every class once per month, asking them three questions about connection to the teacher, if they get the help they need and if they feel connected. "The data says the students are doing well, feeling connected," Buckley says. "They like being with us, but they are still missing that connection piece. How do we blend school life to real life, so they see these skills and experiences bleed into what we traditionally call real life?"
To help show the relevance, staff decided to create five key "focus experiences," akin to a major in college. The idea wasn't to silo students into specific categories, but to give them a focused set of experiences when choosing classes, an intentional addition to the process.
"We have always done registration and high school and beyond plans," Buckley says, "but we are trying to make it more relevant and connected."
The five focus areas include: College Bound (with a heavy emphasis on the 60 credits available through College in the High School classes); Arts and A/V Tech; Health and Human Services; Business, Marketing and Information Technology; and Engineering and Manufacturing.
By using these areas, students can spend time discovering what interests them and find a pathway to graduation that fits their personal interests. As class registration for the 2023-24 school year starts in February, Buckley says this process is helping direct students as they start thinking about the next school year.
That's not all. Getting a better understanding of student interests has already led to new classes at NVHS. Recently the school added a forensics class and a computer science course as part of a third-year math option, complete with project-based learning opportunities. Next year the physical education department gets a restructuring with new classes.
Even with a fresh slate of new classes, connecting core classes to life beyond high school remains key. "You are doing math, but you are also solving hard problems," Buckley offers as an example. "In social studies, you learn to be a critical thinker. In English you express yourself well. The skills you pull out of the core content are the critical skills that help you do well in all these (other areas)."
Jeff Demorset, assistant principal, says NVHS was doing well in teaching students these core skills, but students didn't see the connection. They want to highlight those areas, so students understand the why of what they are learning.
In English, that may mean showing students how becoming better readers allows them to tackle more complex subjects and more quickly understand difficult blocks of text. In Algebra 2, for example, a recent analytics unit applied formals on credit card debt and had students present findings to other students, a real-world example of understanding the content.
"We want to make more and more of those types of connections," Buckley says. "It is just being really clear about what we are learning and highlighting it."