A group of administrators and teachers with Decatur City Schools have been selected as presenters for the Jostens Renaissance national conference, which goes through Tuesday in Orlando, Florida.
They will talk about a variety of topics, but the theme is improving school culture and climate, said longtime Decatur High teacher Brad Boy.
“We’re going to talk about what we do to make sure every student has a place and a reason to belong at Decatur,” he said.
Boy, along with Decatur Principal Johnny Berry, newly assigned principals Mark Christopher at Chestnut Grove Elementary and Rachel Poovey at Decatur High Developmental, and teachers Jessica Flanagan and Amanda Whitmire, will represent DCS at the conference.
The Jostens Renaissance conference is unique in that it brings together teachers, students and parents who share ideas about what is working in their schools, said Boy, who is attending the event for the third time. It also allows schools to customize plans that work for their programs.
The DCS representatives will talk about programs used to bridge the gap between middle and high school and other activities they have put in place, such as the academic pep rally, to make sure every student gets some kind of recognition.
“Every student is not the star athlete in school, but every student does something worth recognition,” Poovey said.
She said the peer tutoring program, which allows high school students to work with middle school students who may need a little help or academic push, has been a success.
“The bigger gain from this is middle school students, who may be afraid of moving to high school, making connections with high school students,” she said. “They are also showing and teaching young students they can be leaders.”
At least one school district from every state will be represented at the conference.
Berry’s topic is about educating and leading in a diverse environment, something DCS has confronted with student demographic shifts in the past two decades.
In 2018 Pennsylvania-based Niche, a company that uses student and parent surveys as well as federal and state data to determine how schools are doing, looked at racial, gender, economic and cultural components of Alabama’s public schools.
Decatur was ranked as the most diverse school system in Alabama, with Austin ranked as the state's most diverse high school. Decatur High was No. 7. In compiling the rankings, Niche looked at racial diversity among students, the percentage of economically disadvantaged students, gender diversity, and a survey of parents and students.
“We’ve had to be culturally aware and we make sure our student activities and leadership teams reflect our student body,” Berry said.
The student body at Decatur City Schools is about 45% white, 29% Hispanic and 25% black. Berry said administrators have to be present at a wide variety of events, because students “black, white, green and gray” are participating in everything.
“Every subgroup needs to feel important, regardless of what they are involved with,” he said.
This week, for example, Berry made several trips to Montgomery to attend athletic events that involved Decatur students.
Christopher, who is moving from Decatur High as an assistant principal to principal at Chestnut Grove Elementary, will talk about school culture. He said his message will be about making school a place where students want to be.
“This means giving them some ownership and letting them have a voice in some of the things we do,” he said.
Poovey shared a story about why letting students have ownership is important. She said a middle school student pushed back for a year against rules and authority and failed seventh grade.
When Decatur Middle visited another school associated with the Jostens Renaissance program in Tennessee for what Poovey called a “pep rally of ideas,” she carried the student who had failed. She said the event was led by students and she allowed the student who had failed to participate freely.
“She opened up because she was with peers and her grades went up,” Poovey said.