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The City Journals

Unifying theme is the basis for everything for Summit Academy

Oct 05, 2020 02:56PM ● By Jet Burnham

Middle School student paints a heart for a collaborative art project. (Cole Hights/Summit Academy)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

At Summit Academy Charter School’s Independence campus, this year’s theme “We Are One” has inspired administrators and teachers to reevaluate every aspect of the school experience for staff, students and parents.

“We want people to know that we really don't just say those words; we don't just say ‘it's our community, and we care’ or that we want to ‘be one,’ Principal Lisa Cutler said. “We try to look at every activity we do through that lens. We are really making a concerted effort to do things differently. We want to live that more and have that be really be who we are: connected and working as one.”

The staff stayed connected with families even when schooling went online last spring. When they couldn’t directly support students, they took time to volunteer in a nearby community garden.

This year, Cutler is offering more frequent virtual meetings to keep parents connected with what is happening in the school and with each other.

The We Are One theme inspired a makeover in the building decor; the school’s two atriums are now decorated with school pride murals and uplifting artwork and unifying phrases.

“When you walk in the building, you should be able to feel what that place is like and see what they're about,” Cutler said. 

Middle school students were invited to contribute to a large-scale collaborative art piece, part of Cutler’s vision to fill the school with pictures of students and their work.

The We Are One theme even affected the school fundraiser, a CoRUNavirus Fun Run held Sept 17. Instead of students competing for prizes based on how much money they raised individually, they worked collectively to earn a dress-down day or extra recess when they met their goal as a class.

Cutler wants students’ school experience to be focused more on connections with others instead of just earning grades. That is why teachers and administrators are focused on building relationships with the 900 K–8 students at their campus.

“We try to know the individual—that's what we do, that's what's built into our programs,” Cutler said. “Everything we try to do is to really know each kid and have them be known by all the teachers.” Because she knows student success is related to having a connection with at least one caring adult in the school, Cutler encourages teachers to take the time to really get to know students, even those not in their classes.

Sixth grade teacher Lissa Labrum asks students questions to identify common interests on which they can form a relationship.

“As a teacher, I have learned that by connecting with students, the classroom can come to life,” Labrum said. “No longer are they just a number or a kid in your class, but they are an individual who is excited to learn and can add something unique to the learning environment.”

She said it also prevents behavior problems.

“If there is a student that I struggle to connect with, I always try to attend a sporting event or activity that they are involved in,” she said. “When students know you care about them, they are more willing to open up to you.”

Middle school teacher Cole Hights said students are more willing to listen to and learn from a teacher who has taken the time to get to know them, which lets the student know they respect and value them. Even a frustrated student responds better to a teacher when they know they will be listened to and treated fairly, he said.

“It's showing the kids that they are respected as an individual,” Hights said. “Once these kids feel like they are respected and they know their worth, I think we get better students in the classroom, we get better students in the hallways, and we make those connections for a lifelong connection.”

Hights develops this kind relationship with his students by treating them first as humans and second as a student. Like many Summit Academy teachers, Hights starts the school day with a Morning Mingle, in which students and teachers talk about what they enjoy and what is important to them. Some teachers ask students to answer a specific question of the day, while others let students share what they want to.

Tiana Butler, a junior high math teacher, uses what she learns about her students to personalize her lessons.

“I try to get to know my students as people, learning about their likes and hobbies and then doing what I can to incorporate those things into my math and leadership lessons,” Butler said.

Students have responded well to the personal connection with their teachers. When they were asked what they liked most about the school year last year, some of the student responses were:

“My favorite memory of this year was of how much I got to know my teachers as human instead of teachers.”

“I remember in school that teachers always cared.”

“I appreciate how she doesn’t only care about our academics, but she also cares about how we are doing in general.”

“She is one of the few people that I would trust with my life.”