woman sits in a chair in a classroom with both arms spread wide; students sit facing her
February 07, 2023

Helping New Students Connect

Action research leads to improved support systems for new students at Holland Hall
by Jane Beckwith
A post from the Tang Action Research Program*

During my 25 years at Holland Hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I have been a middle and upper school faculty member, department chair, coach, yoga instructor, and co-director of a place-based semester program. I now serve as the director of teaching and learning. In early spring 2022, I was having a wide-ranging conversation with a student, Scout. At the time Scout was in her junior year at our school. At some point in the conversation, I asked Scout about her experience joining as a new ninth grade student.

With an enrollment of approximately 360 students, Holland Hall’s upper school is a confluence of students who have attended the school since preschool and kindergarten (aka “lifers”), students who have attended since their middle school years, and new students. These new upper school students are mostly from Tulsa, though some come from outlying rural communities and others from out of state. Finding one’s way into the academic and social fabric of the school can be challenging because of the following:

  • navigating the unique modular schedule
  • encountering already established social circles
  • understanding expectations
  • decoding acronyms for the names of buildings and programs

Scout had many interesting anecdotes to share. In short order she identified several significant instances of struggle and succinctly explained how she and some of her fellow incoming friends navigated the challenges they encountered. Furthermore, Scout readily suggested multiple solutions to these challenges—things she said the school could do differently that would better support all future new upper school students. For example, Scout noted how intimidating it felt to schedule meetings with teachers. She recommended that new students receive more direct instruction about how, when, and why they should schedule these meetings and that a requirement to do so at least once within the first two months of school would be helpful.

My conversation with Scout made a deep impression on me, and when I became involved with the Tang Action Research Program in the summer 2022, I was inspired to use this opportunity to collaborate with Scout to investigate the experiences that she and her peers shared as new students. Given the timeline of the Tang Action Research Program, we decided to identify an issue that would allow us to apply improvement science tools over the course of the 2022–2023 academic year.

We wanted to continue focusing on systems that impact the experience of students entering Holland Hall’s upper school. We decided to first gather specific data from current students who had joined the community as 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th graders. To these students, we sent out a simple “community pulse” survey. We hoped that this survey would help us identify strengths and areas for improvement in the systems that are intended to support new upper school students. Student respondents were asked to rank levels of support they experienced as they adjusted to four categories of school life. They were also provided space for anecdotes or examples that clarify ratings, and for suggestions.

Not Supported |

Somewhat Supported |

Well Supported

Arts

0%

17.5%

82.5%

Academics

2.5%

35%

62.5%

Athletics

5%

32.5%

62.5%

Social Engagement

15%

35%

50%

The results allowed us to select social engagement as our focus. As Scout and I sifted through the responses, we recognized that many students identified student-led clubs as a space that fosters and supports positive social engagement. Students consistently requested that clubs meet more often, or at least more consistently. Their anecdotes and examples highlighted the qualities of clubs that made these gatherings potential sites for positive social engagement. When Scout and I drew out themes from these narratives, we were able to discern three features that, together, seem to give clubs this distinctive potential:

  • student agency
  • organizational structure
  • sense of purpose (often, but not exclusively, related to community service)

Furthermore, respondents described how their experiences in clubs created a sense of connection and inclusion. Scout and I recognized that we could leverage these features and qualities of student-led clubs to help new upper school students develop meaningful relationships within their peer community.

It is a pleasure to conduct this work alongside a student. Scout offers important insights from the student perspective. She has been instrumental in the design of data gathering instruments, such as the survey, and she has co-facilitated presentations and meetings. When asked for her thoughts about the experience, Scout shared, “I feel like I’ve actually made an impact at Holland Hall, and I feel that I have more of a relationship with the school.”

While Scout and I continue to explore the data and collaborate with students and faculty, the information we have gathered is helping to inform difficult decisions about the amount of time that Holland Hall allocates for programs like clubs. The insights shared by new students reveal the subtle tradeoffs to timetable and programmatic changes.

Scout and I are considering strategies for maximizing the social and community benefits of the available club time, and as we implement changes through the spring semester, we will continue studying the features and function of clubs in our community. The implementation and learning should be intertwined and mutualistic; we hope to increase positive social engagement amongst new students, and we hope to better understand how clubs foster a sense of belonging and purpose.

__________________________________________________________________________

*Jane Beckwith is the director of teaching and learning at Holland Hall in Tulsa, Okla. She is a participant in the Tang Action Research Program, which provides a year of training and support to educators who wish to improve an area of their school. Educators apply the principles of Improvement Science, using rigorous inquiry and testing to guide development.

Scout Taggart is a senior at Holland Hall. Next fall, she will be attending Brandeis University, where she plans to study anthropology and art history. She has been named a Justice Brandeis Scholar.

Photo Credit: Jasman Lover, Holland Hall Staff Photographer

Categories: Partnerships, Featured

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