Being a Laker, then and now

By Jamie Riel, teacher leader and student advocate, Lake Region High School

I joined the Lake Region High School community shortly after it was recognized as a failing school. Upon reflection, I am convinced there are few things that can be done to or said about a school that has a worse effect than being tagged with such a label. Teachers and staff had worked diligently to offer a quality educational experience to students, and many students worked hard to take advantage of those offerings. Of course there were shortcomings—it is the nature of any human endeavor. The stigma of the label, however, is crushing. Teachers were understandably angry and hurt, some community members unforgiving, and students were confused as to what it meant. Many students thought there wasn’t a chance for any of them to get a quality education at Lake Region. Some just gave up, saying trying didn’t matter because it’s a failing school anyway. Morale was low. Being new and hired as part of the School Improvement Grant (SIG), I was viewed with suspicion, and those early days were uncomfortable at best.

In this climate, under this cloud, people banded together and got to work. We began listening to staff and students, we visited other schools viewed as “successful,” attended conferences, gathered ideas and brainstormed ways to pull together the best of these ideas and tailor a new educational model for our school. SIG, having a three-year timeline, is like running a bureaucratic and financial gauntlet, and we were constantly under pressure to make major advances and enact significant change in very short order. We were intent on building a new model that offered students interdisciplinary, student-centered, project-based experiences that would give them the skills needed to succeed in a 21st century that demanded solid communication skills and a global perspective on finance, health, government, and the environment. Slowly our academy model took shape. We made adjustments, reshaped it, tailored it to our needs and desires. It was an exciting time.

In our second year we launched the new model. Some said it would not float, but it did. It wasn’t a perfect sail, so we continued to modify it, keeping what worked, changing what needed adjustments, throwing out what didn’t fit. We developed new programs to meet student needs and created new academies to offer them choices based on their interests. This was tiring work during anxious times, as all members of the school community recognized we were in unchartered waters, and that we all needed to develop new skills, train our students to become more active and responsible for their own education, and implement the new academy model at the same time.

Year three found us still afloat. We still needed to make changes, fine tune. Continual change is necessary to keep up with an ever-changing world, but so much had changed for us it was disorienting at times. But people kept pushing. More people supported these new ideas and approaches. More teachers continued to change how they instruct students, more students became invested and raised their voices about what they wanted and needed in their school. Slowly this community began to heal, to come together again, to believe in themselves again. Personally, I felt people opened more to me, gained trust and understood I was and am on their side. “I” has become “we” as I now feel I am a part of this dynamic community.

When involved in such an enterprise, people tend to keep their heads down, focused on the task at hand, pushing forward to find new avenues toward success. That was us when we heard a voice from afar that said, “Hey, Lake Region, guess what? Your good numbers, they’ve gone up. Your bad numbers have gone down. You are improving. Indeed, you are a model school! Congratulations!”

What did it mean? Are we any better now than we were three years ago? Are we better as teachers and students? Do we teach differently? Are we learning more? The answer is, to be truthful, yes, some of us are better teachers. Some are stretching themselves to learn new approaches to education. Some students are pushing themselves more, demanding more of their teachers even as teachers demand more of students. Some are learning more—both teachers and students—as we continue to question one another and try to find ways to improve what we do. There are those who still do not believe, but I think they are losing ground in the face of small but important victories, in the presence of those who are collaborating and developing new approaches and growing as professional educators, and as learners. Many of us—parents and staff and students—continue to move forward with our heads down and with great focus. We know what success is—how it feels, what it looks like, how it tastes, how it enriches us—and we are dedicated to keeping it alive here at Lake Region, and it is good. Very good.

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One thought on “Being a Laker, then and now

  1. Previously, we asked schools to track kids, to separate them, and to sort the college-bound from those who were directed toward the trades. With NCLB our policies changed overnight. Suddenly, schools were failing if they hadn’t brought ALL students to mastery of the math, reading, and writing measured in state-wide tests. But bringing ALL students to mastery is a new job for our schools. Are we surprised that our school’s first attempts at such an ambitious new mission were less than perfect? I think that the willingness of schools like this one to take on this new mission, go back to the drawing board, and redesign their whole approach is inspiring. It is what learning is all about. It is what we ask of our students. It is the best of national character. Congratulations Lakers. And congratulations Jamie on such a thoughtful reflection.

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