Column: Keeping students at the center of all we do

Denise Pontrelli

BY DENISE PONTRELLI
GUEST COLUMNIST

Each school year, it seems, goes by a little faster. Within the blink of an eye we went from the first day of school to the last. The past nine months have been a blur of activity — every day filled with learning and adventure as students and teachers push themselves to explore new concepts and try new things.

This year has not been easy, as our district is immersed in a time of transition. Preparing for grade configuration changes, boundary changes, school closures and hundreds of students and staff moving to new buildings has created additional stress, worry and uncertainty for so many. Yet, inside our classrooms, amazing things have happened.

The highlight of the year for me has been the hours I’ve spent engaged in deep and meaningful conversations with our students. Each month I’ve met with various groups of high school and junior high students to talk about the things that matter to them. They’ve provided their honest perspectives on what is working and what isn’t working in our schools.

What do our students tell us? Here’s just a little of what I’ve learned from our kids:

• They love their teachers, coaches, advisors — especially the ones who have taken time to get to know them personally, and ask about their lives, their dreams and their ambitions.

• They can feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious. They have high expectations of themselves, often pushing themselves to take more challenging classes, participate in more activities, study longer and sleep less.

• They value freedom to express themselves, ask questions and challenge preconceived notions. They prefer debate and discussion to memorization and lecture.

• They want to be active and engaged in their learning. Their favorite teachers are the ones who make lessons relevant to real-life. They like hands-on activities and collaborative projects that require deeper thinking and problem solving.

• They desire to engage in real and authentic debate and conversation. They want to dig deeper into real-life issues, and discuss political and social justice issues in meaningful ways.

• They are thoughtful and idealistic, passionate and empathetic. They see more than we think they do, and they are more concerned about the world’s issues than we thought they were.

• Relationships matter. It’s the personal connections to teachers, staff members and classmates that keep them coming to school each day and help them succeed.

Students don’t care about budgets and policies. They’re less concerned about their physical surroundings, and more focused on the people working within the school walls. For our kids, it’s a kind smile that gives them the confidence to take on a new task. It’s a friendly greeting that makes them feel welcome and safe. It’s the extra few minutes spent explaining an assignment in greater detail that inspires them to keep trying. These are the things that really matter for our kids.

While there is lingering disagreement in our community of the best way to support our students, there is no doubt we all have our children’s best interest at heart. I am incredibly proud to be part of a community that cares about its students so deeply. I strongly believe even better things are in store for us in the years ahead as we work together to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of our students.

Denise Pontrelli is superintendent of Stillwater Area Public Schools.