The following is a transcript of Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron’s back to school remarks
It is an honor to be here with you this evening in this gorgeous space and say welcome to the ‘17-‘18 school year. Thank you for being here this evening. I thank our teachers and staff, and especially my Assistant Principals, Cheryl Hewitt, Terry Woolard, and Charles Ezell and Activities and Athletics Director Larry Busichio for such a smooth start to the school year.
I hope you saw last week that we have the distinction of having been named New Jersey’s most beautiful high school and thus one of the 50 most beautiful high schools in the country by the editors of Architectural Digest magazine.
Yes – we are beautiful – a bit faded and in need of upgrades, but gorgeous nonetheless.
I have the easy part this evening. I just speak once this evening, to all of you. The hard work on Back to School night is that of teachers, who receive the harried — and often hungry – parents and guardians of children they will spend the next school year with – and in only ten minutes try to convey everything they want you to know, are excited about and want you to have in mind we start the school year.
In June, I had the pleasure of calling out the name of every student who graduated from CHS, and it was one of the best days of my career.
At our graduation ceremony, as each student stood waiting to be called to walk across the stage, I had the privilege of making eye contact with each and every one of them before calling out their name. The smiles were huge, the applause was loud, and the 435 graduates in their shiny red polyester gowns looked gorgeous. They were headed to 2- and 4- year colleges – to Brown and Princeton and Yale, to huge state universities and tiny colleges, to the great state university otherwise known as Rutgers, to art schools, to technical schools, to the armed forces, to jobs, to Americorps for a year of service.
They are well on their way, and your students, this year, who follow in their footsteps are working toward that same graduation goal, whether they are 9th graders just barely begun on their high school journey, or whether they are our seniors, getting out of bed early to make it in to our very well-attended college application workshops.
So, here are some things to keep in mind, please, as we do this work together this year. You have heard me say some of these things before, but I believe they are worth repeating.
Check Powerschool. Not often. Maybe once a week. Usually on, maybe Mondays. (Teachers often grade on the weekends.) Tell your student to check Powerschool. Maybe twice a week. Tell them to attend tutorial periods, to ask their teachers for help, to raise their hands in class, to tell us what they need. Set aside quiet time for homework, ask them questions about it, and demand a decent bedtime. There is no such thing as too much sleep for the teenage body and brain.
This morning, I had a very serious conversation with a student who…shall we say…had not previously been working to potential. And he said, flat out – and wanted to show me – that he has Powerschool on his phone. He was quite pleased with himself – and rightly so – “Ms. Aaron, I swear – I have it on my phone – this is the first time in three years I have looked at Powerschool!” …..you get the picture. And that is a huge step for him in the right direction. So please, help your students use PowerSchool as ‘a’ tool for success, but be sure to help them develop others.
Help us all remind our students that high school is not a contest. It’s not a race to the finish, it is not about comparing yourself to others. It is about finding out who you are, what your strengths are, what areas of growth you need to focus on and what you will do someday out in the world. It’s about making safe and healthy choices. It’s about getting off your phone, away from your on-screen social life, and having real conversations and relationships with people – in the hallways, in our classrooms, in your kitchens. It’s about engaging with good books, difficult content, and relevant issues. It is about being in and of the world, and choosing to contribute to it.
Our students have some of the most talented teachers anywhere. I stand with them and behind them as they work with our students this year. This summer, teachers at CHS finished their master’s degrees, worked on doctoral coursework, visited national parks, went to Cuba on cultural exchanges, wrote curriculum, learned about mindfulness and more.
For this year, our administrative team built a schedule that allows for tutorial periods every day, increases teacher time with students for support, allows for in-school interventions for student attendance concerns, allows for in-school credit recovery and increased teacher collaboration time. We attended professional development on the implementation of the Amistad curriculum to center the African American experience in our courses, we added books to our curriculum to engage more students in what we know are topics that are of interest to them and critical to their development, we welcomed our Mandarin Chinese teacher, we participated in work around knowing how to support students who are experiencing trauma that impacts their health and learning. We hired new teachers, said farewell to some happy retirees, and worked with students in our summer programs to get them ready if not ahead for this school year.
Toward the end of summer, about 35 juniors and seniors gave up a morning of summer vacation to write notes on the 560+ welcome letters , and then folded and stuffed them in envelopes for our 9th graders. They then also gave up their last morning to sleep in – and maybe squeeze in the last minutes of work on summer assignments – to shepherd those 9th graders through their first day. They were bright, funny, warm, patient, and welcoming. It was a good day.
Yesterday, I happened to stop at the light right here at Prospect and Parker. One of our soccer players was in uniform, waiting for the light to change. I rolled down my window to ask how the game had gone – he said they had won, 4-0, I think, and I said congrats and gave him a thumbs up! A moment later, a student came up behind him, having heard our exchange. I watched as he extended his hand to the soccer player, said something obviously congratulatory, and they crossed the street together, chatting.
This morning, I watched as a senior, seeing a 9th grader , unsure of where to go to find her class, said, “What are you looking for?” She told him, and off they went. No adult direction needed. One CHS student to another, as happens all the time in our building.
Last year, to be frank, was a difficult year for schools, and students and teachers, and our community and school district had some powerful and frank conversations about who we are, and who we want to be. For me, those experiences – town hall meetings, board meetings, media coverage and more – ultimately come to this:
Our students expect us to do our jobs. They expect us to do our jobs as parents and guardians, as teachers and leaders, as coaches and mentors. They want us to be good at what we do, to be there for them when they falter, to push them when they are ready, and to be honest with them. They want us to hear them, see them, and to want them to do well.
We do. We are committed to that work. We are committed to the success of every single student in this building. We are committed to them being here every day, to being on time, to being present and engaged with their teachers, to setting goals and reaching – and then exceeding – them. We want them to feel at their very core that this is their Columbia, every day.
We are committed to making sure all of our staff are culturally competent – that is, that they know how to welcome, support, and work with every student who enters our classrooms. And we are committed to being transparent about our work, our weaknesses, and to partnering with you in support of our students.
If you follow me on Twitter – and you should, because as the parents of teens, let’s face it, my tweets are your best chance to get actual information about your child’s lives in this building – you may know I like to read. In fact, one of my standard questions to students is, “What are you reading?” – and I love hearing what they are reading. (@cougarprincipal)
I recently read a terrific book, set in a high school. And one passage was this:
“They lived in a time in which it was tremendously difficult, as parents, to let children endure any pain. If you sensed their despair, you took it on as if it were your own. You let it ruin you, imagining that they, somehow, would be spared. They would live, and thrive, while you would die of their transferred misery. Lately, more than ever at high school, the teachers received emails from [adults] when their children were having difficulties. They wrote:
Dear Ms. Lang: Hello, I am Kevin Derringer’s mom. Though I know in his essay he refers repeatedly to the author of To Kill A Mockingbird as “Mr.” Lee, Kevin did pay attention in class. Plus it’s worth mentioning that he had blepharitis, an eye infection, the night before it was due, and that might have adversely affected his work. *
There is certainly cause for despair these days- it is simply the time we live in. Our children hear, see, and experience things that we would like to shield them from, lessen the blows of, or simply make disappear. But we usually cannot. So we do our best to mitigate the damage the world may do us and our children, and we try to do our very best to build resilient and successful teens. There is great cause for joy, and work, and collaboration in our world – and that is what we are committed to at CHS this year.
So, as you hear from your children’s teachers tonight, please bear this in mind….we are here to work with you, to work with your students, and to make sure that each and every day is one that builds them toward the future – whatever they may imagine it to be, and whatever they want it to look like.
We are here to celebrate their successes, we are here to support them in their struggles, and we look forward to a most excellent year together.
Thank you. Have a wonderful evening.
* The passage quoted is from Meg Wolizter’s 2011 novel The Uncoupling, about a high school performance of the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes.