CHS Principal Aaron at Back to School Night: ‘Much to Celebrate,’ Much Work Ahead

by The Village Green
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Editor’s note: the following are remarks Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron made at Thursday’s Back to School night.

Welcome, parents and guardians, and thank you to all of our teachers and staff who shine so brightly every day at CHS but especially for their work tonight to share what we do this evening.

We are well on our way to an excellent year at CHS. Please join us in standing for the Pledge of Allegiance and National Anthem, sung by members of our choral program.

It is my pleasure and an honor to welcome you to Columbia High School this evening. Our Back-to-School night is designed to provide you with an introduction to your children’s teachers, an overview of the courses they will be taking this year, and a sense of our expectations for their growth and development. We look forward to working with you as partners in their education and appreciate so much the support you have already shown us this year.

I had the honor last night of attending a dinner sponsored by the Wall Street Journal to mark the release of a year-long study of gender equity and diversity in the work place. “What you measure”, said the CEO of Pepsi, “are the metrics that move”. That is certainly true for those of us in education as well – so here are some of our metrics.

This year, we have 558 students taking one or more of our 22 Advanced Placement classes – 134 more students than last year. Last year, 424 students at CHS took 796 AP exams for college credit, and 85.6% received a score of 3 or higher. Those results are 13% higher than the NJ average, and 26% higher than the global results. Yet 66 students failed 9th grade English Language Arts – and 45 of them were young men of color. Almost all of our Calculus students scored a 3 or higher on the AP exam, but 60 freshmen failed a math course. On our AP Language, Composition, and Literature exams, 99 of 106 students passed with a 3 or higher – stunning results – but 44 students failed 11th grade English Language Arts. 31 were students of color. This is the some of the work ahead.

26 students are enrolled in our first year of the three-year Science Research course, and 16 are in the 2nd year of that program. 1,190 students are taking an art class. 457 are taking a music class. Over 400 students are playing a fall sport. Spectrum, Power, Diversity Rocks, the Chess Club, the Film Club, Astronomy Club, the Key Club, the Animal Rights Club, Junior States of America, the Ubuntu Service Club, Future Medical Students of America, the Guitar Club, the Step Team, and the Italian Club – are just some of extracurriculars already underway. Our fall Parnassian theater production, Almost Maine, has been cast, and our spring musical, Beauty and the Beast, has been announced. Our women’s volleyball team has a 6-1 record, our Student Council conducted a Saturday retreat to set goals for the year, and our Peer Leaders and Reading Buddies are already connecting with students in our building and with our elementary students.

We have sent 477 seniors on their way to 183 different schools, colleges, and universities, and heard from many already that they are doing well at school and work and say that CHS prepared them for life after high school. Their space in the hallways and in our classrooms have been filled by our freshman class of 534, who have settled in beautifully to their new lives as Cougars. 90 students are enrolled in our mathematics lab support periods and 58 freshmen will begin next week to benefit from our FAST study hall pull-out or push-in support. Almost 1000 sophomores and juniors will take the in-school PSAT on October 14 as a key step on their paths toward college and career-readiness.

I share these ‘metrics’ with you because we have and will continue to use them declare our priorities. We have much to celebrate at CHS – success that is recognized by our peers statewide. Yet we have students with needs unmet, and using facts and data to inform our work is the way toward excellence for all of our students.

I am so proud to say that due to the work of two of our current students, Columbia High School has chartered a chapter of the National Honor Society, and will shortly be accepting applications. Members will fulfill their service obligation by serving as Peer Tutors for others at Columbia. Our Peer Leaders and mentors have already begun working with their peers in need of a structured way to ‘check in’ and work on strategies for success at CHS. We built a foundational program into our summer school this past summer to focus students on strategies for social and academic success, and we have designed new programming for students most at-risk for lack of success in a ‘traditional’ high school setting. We are exploring other academic supports for them this year as needs arise to make sure they are met. In fact, I am having lunch with them tomorrow to check in on some of their first few weeks of class.

We will continue to look closely as a staff with our new superintendent, who is here with us this evening, to see where our strengths are, and to identify areas where students and teachers struggle. We have scheduled more biology teachers into 9th period to be available to support our 9th graders. We have revised key elements of our 9th grade English language arts curriculum to include a common grammar and composition component and to have more titles that we know will engage readers at all levels and with diverse interests. Our professional development work for teachers this year centers on our Framework for Effective Teaching and making sure all teacher Professional Learning Communities’ work and goals are aligned with our district and school’s mission and goals.

Thank you for reminding your students to put their phones and other electronics “off and away” each day when they enter school. When we open the doors each morning, we are struck by something we love – the chatter: the delightful sound of all kinds of voices, talking and laughing and comparing notes about homework, classes, teachers, friends…high school life. It is the same noise we are noticing as students move from class to class – they are talking to each other instead of checking in with the drama and distracting lights of their phones. Please continue to encourage them to put those electronics off and away at home as well. I promise you’ll get some good conversation – and happier children – from it.

About two weeks ago, I was in the hallway and saw one of our students. As we approached each other, I got a terrific “Hey, Ms. Aaron!”, and we stopped to chat. I said, “What’s new?” In my head, of course, lots of things are new…new teachers, new curricula, gearing up for the PSAT, the second year of PARCC, Common Core state standards, our revised handbook, procedures to eliminate paperwork where we can, our new superintendent, preparing for our Middle States Accreditation visit in November…but none of these, of course, were his answer.

His answer, to what was ‘new’ was…braces. Yes, indeed. For him – that IS what’s new. A bunch of sharp, odd-tasting metal pieces on all of his teeth, and all that such a development in a teenage life entails – including, I can recall myself, trying to get food out of your teeth after lunch, and figuring out what your new smile looks like.

I share this with you because what our conversation reminded me of – in fact, what it put front and center for me – is that braces, or something similar – are what’s new for our students on any given day. A French quiz, a particularly difficult physics problem, a worry about a college essay, a job application, something about a friend, navigating relationships, your self-esteem, your life. That’s what is usually ‘new’ for our students.

Remembering that the way our students experience school is very different from either how we as teachers and administrators do, or even as we may have done as students ourselves – this is the key to making sure we are doing our best work with your students. Please listen this evening to how your students’ teachers will work with them this year, and how you can help support that work at home – as you walk in your students’ footsteps tonight.

Please remember that PowerSchool is a lot like a light sabre – it can be used for great good, but can also do damage. Please check it weekly – not daily – not hourly – and use it as a tool to open up discussions about teaching and learning with your students – not as a way to shut conversation down. Don’t ask what grade they got – ask them what they learned, and why it matters. Ask them how and why they did well – and how they can do better.

Our staff and community, including many of you here tonight– worked with us over the past year to look at data, to consider our strengths and areas of growth, and to articulate a vision for CHS where every student is challenged, nurtured, engaged, and supported every day. Some of that work is complicated and has been quite public. Our work over the past year to create a strategic plan for the high school involved having many thoughtful and productive conversations and conducting work sessions around what we do well, and what we must do better. Early next week we will send you the results of some of the work we did last year as a school community around our mission and goals, and we will ask you – as required by the Middle States Association for accreditation– to respond to a survey about our work. Please help us by doing so.

Please continue to support our parent organizations such as the Columbia High School Music Parents Association, our Boosters, the Columbia High School Scholarship Fund, and please both join the Home and School Association and subscribe to their newsletter and grade-level email distribution lists. These are important avenues for learning what is going on and how to support your students.

Please also continue to work with us to recognize the signs of students in crisis or need. Your students face challenges every day from their peers, from the media, from their teachers, me, you, and themselves. Their access to and risk for unhealthy and illegal choices, and other dangerous behaviors regarding health and wellness is great. Please be the parents and guardians who host the party, who call to ask questions about other people’s parties, and who are willing to buy the pizza, drive to the bowling alley or movies, and suffer through an evening of shrieking, giggling, texting, or smelly-footed teens in your yard or your living room to keep our students safe, happy, and well. They – and we – will thank you for it.

Our Guidance and Counseling department, our grade-level assistant principals, our Student Assistance Counselors, and our Loft program are all here to provide supports for you and your students as you navigate what one writer calls, I think quite accurately, the ‘minefield’ of adolescence. Gillian McGrath, a CHS grad herself, is the director of our Loft program for counseling and family support services. Please visit her in the cafeteria this evening.

Tennis champion Chris Evert recently lost her father, who had taught thousands of children, including his own, a love for the sport. About him, she recently said the following: “In a nutshell, my dad created the ideal environment for me to compete. He gave me the space I needed and in his own quiet way brought out the best in me by not asking me to be more than myself.”

That is what I ask of you, and what we ask your students, and what I ask of myself and the entire staff at Columbia, every day. We want them to learn who they are, and to grow to be their best selves, and we will work to make Columbia the ideal environment in which that will happen.

Your children are and have the ability to be remarkably kind, gifted, funny, thoughtful, hardworking, talented, and delightful human beings. They are a pleasure to work with everyday. Please enjoy this evening getting to know a little bit more about their lives here at CHS, and please work with me to help bring out the best in them – and to let them learn to be, and grow into, who they are supposed to be. If we watch and listen, they will tell us exactly what they need and it is my commitment to you and to them that they will find it at Columbia. Thank you.


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