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Flagstaff High School: Supporting Students' College, Career, and Life Readiness During COVID-19

June 2020

Tony Cullen

The vintage VW van parked in the driveway of Principal Tony Cullen's home serves as the headquarters for planning and implementing Flagstaff High School's coronavirus response.

A few weeks after Flagstaff High School (FHS) in Flagstaff, Arizona, closed its buildings as part of the effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Principal Tony Cullen and two FHS counselors participated in an online meeting with REL West staff. The agenda was to finalize an annual calendar of all FHS activities specifically geared to preparing students for success in career, college, and life. Such activities range from those that are more academic in nature, such as test preparation, to those that have not traditionally been part of students’ high school experience, such as financial literacy lessons and efforts to support students’ social-emotional learning (SEL).

To minimize distractions, Cullen joined from his vintage VW van, parked in the driveway of his home, which serves as a temporary office while FHS buildings are shuttered. The timing of that meeting, coming so soon after school facilities were closed and while FHS staff, like educators everywhere, were still scrambling to establish distance learning, speaks volumes about the exceptionally high value Cullen and his staff place on students’ career, college, and life readiness (CCLR). They see this broadly defined readiness as central to the school’s primary goal of strengthening students’ social and emotional health so students are better situated to achieve their postsecondary goals. Career and technical education counselor Diane Sorden explains the value this way, “If you have dreams for your future, and if you have the skills and resources to get there, you can move your life forward.”

For the past several years, a growing FHS team has been working to transform the school’s culture — and that of the district and community — to focus greater attention on CCLR. The team now includes FHS administrators, teachers, and counselors, as well as representatives from the Northern Arizona College Resource Center. Beginning in 2018, the group has been meeting twice a month as part of Arizona Partnership for Education and Career Success (APECS), a REL West partnership to promote CCLR. As part of that work, REL West has helped to build capacity among school and district staff to make effective use of CCLR data. This has included helping them identify and interpret appropriate measures for tracking progress toward meeting their goals. The work has also included creating a data inventory that lists all relevant data from school, district, state, and national sources. Having easily accessible data helps FHS staff in their efforts to gauge the outcomes of their CCLR activities.

The CCLR planning meeting that Cullen joined from his van — currently serving as CCLR headquarters — had been in the works for a while. With the school building closed, and staff moving fast to check on the safety and well-being of students and to ensure that they all had equitable access to the resources needed in order to complete the academic year, some administrators might well have cancelled or postponed the meeting. But Cullen and his team saw that meeting as all the more important. “When our school first closed,” he explains, “we knew that our CCLR work — a driving force and top priority for the school — needed to continue. It is critical not just for students’ future postsecondary success, but for supporting their well-being now and in the coming year, when students and their families are likely to feel greater stress on all fronts.” So the annual CCLR calendar is now established and, during this period, the school’s CCLR activities have continued with minimal interruption, thanks in part to the team’s past efforts to establish solid structures and practices.

For their part, FHS counselors have also emphasized the need to offer greater support to students during this challenging time. To that end, they’ve worked closely with teachers and administrators to establish flexible grading parameters and to identify and provide support for  students who might otherwise be unable to successfully complete their coursework in a distance learning setting. They paid particular attention to seniors who, without the additional support, may have been unable to graduate. The counselors have also made sure the school’s SEL curricula are available online. For example, in relation to character development, the school used social media and virtual assemblies to push out reflection questions on such topics as the importance of maintaining relationships during isolation.

Student Engagement Survey

During this period of distance learning, with the many changes required of educators and students alike, FHS’s leadership team is taking full advantage of the school’s greater data-related capacity developed through involvement in APECS. The use of data is front and center in all decisionmaking. For example, the team has been administering a weekly teacher survey to learn, among other things, how teachers are communicating with students and families and the extent to which they perceive their students to be engaged in distance learning. Survey results help the team to identify successful communication approaches and ways to support greater student engagement; understand teachers’ need for support; plan for the possibility of future remote learning; and design future SEL curricula. The team plans to share survey data with the district so district leaders are more fully aware of the challenges schools face in establishing communication with students and families and maintaining student engagement. This, Cullen hopes, will prompt greater district-level discussion about developing policies to support school efforts in the future “because we don’t know what will happen in the fall.”

Celebrating Students on the Road to College and Career

End-of-year celebrations at FHS, such as college signing day, senior showcase, senior scholarship ceremony, an awards ceremony, Hispanic and Native American Convocations, and graduation, are central features of the school’s yearly CCLR efforts. Adjustments have been made to ensure that the school’s many traditions have continued on this year, albeit in a remote environment. But there is also one new and important activity that, with any luck, won’t need to become a tradition — “Operation Eagles Nest.”

Congrats, Flagstaff High School class of 2020 senior.

Operation Eagle’s Nest was conceived as a way to celebrate seniors from afar, no matter where they might be sheltering in place. To let all seniors know just how important they are to the school community, 65 FHS faculty and staff surprised them by placing graduation lawn signs in front of wherever each student has been living during this period, which includes places as distant as 200 miles away on the Navajo and Hopi reservations and 130 miles away in Phoenix. The seniors reportedly felt connected and celebrated. One teacher reported that a senior cried with joy. Another student posted a photo of the lawn sign on Instagram, with the message, “classy move FHS.” An unintended positive outcome has been that participating FHS faculty and staff strengthened their mutual bonds and found their own spirits lifted as they delivered the signs in the dark of night.

For more on the partnership with Flagstaff High School, read “Data Is Driving the Strategy”: How REL West is Helping One Arizona High School Focus on College and Career Readiness and visit the Arizona Partnership for Education and Career Success.