by Marissa Lorenz
Students returned to West Grand schools this week amidst all the excitement of too-early alarms, first-day photos, reunions with friends, and meet-and-greets with new staff members and peers. They are also being welcomed back into a shifting environment with a focus on “renewed climate and culture,” through ongoing implementation of the Jostens Renaissance program begun last year by District Superintendent Darrin Peppard. Peppard is leading a group of trained staff and students to put in place environmental enhancements and motivational efforts to promote the four R’s of the program — Respect, Recognition, Reward, and Reinforcement — “in order to create a positive school culture for students and staff that contributes to increased attendance and graduation rates, improved academic performance and behavior, higher teacher retention rates, and a boost in overall school spirit,” according to the program’s website.
Dr. Peppard introduced the program over a year ago, taking a small group of teachers, other staff, and students to a Florida conference prior to the 2018-19 school year. They returned to Orlando this August for the 28th annual Jostens Renaissance National Conference to continue building enthusiasm and skills meant to help improve academic achievement for all students, increase graduation rates, and better school climate. This year’s group consisted of administrative staff, including Peppard, Jack Daly, new principal of the K-8 school, Nate Tedjeske, Cori Kassib, and Taryn Edson; teachers Jessica Tedjeske, Nellie Thomson, and Jennifer Stuart; and counselor Jennifer Vance. It also included a select group of chosen students, incoming seniors Angel Castillo and Emma DeSanti, juniors Iliana Castillo and Omar Dominguez, and sophomores Jesus Dominguez and Emily Osborne.
The experience has been described by all as “truly life changing” and the student leaders seem especially infused with an energy of growth and enthusiasm. “It’s really an honor to be chosen as a school leader and to be able to help other students find the spark within them. It’s great to see students better themselves and better our school,” says Angel. “This year, I want to help create a culture that’s safe and kind and that we can all have pride in.” Emma shared similar thoughts. “Last year was hard and took a lot of perseverance,” she says. “Now we’re being pushed to the next level and I want to bring the love that I’m feeling to our school and community, building pride and participation.”
Already they are putting their motivation into action. In preparation for the first day of classes, the high school students created a full-scale chalk mural in the front entrance of the high school building and led welcome-back rallies. They made and distributed goody bags to all high school staff. During the registration event, they hosted a welcome party, putting on fun and safe activities for kids and allowing parents to register kids without distraction. And they conducted their own mini 4-hour conference for all staff members, sharing some of the most significant highlights of the National Conference and bringing all staff members into the mission. “We want to make everyone feel that they belong and that they have a sense of purpose,” Emma conveyed.
Administrative leaders are just as excited to see the student enthusiasm. “It’s not just about personal growth and widened perspective,” Edson says, “but it’s about the importance of looking out and trying to make the world around you better — whatever that world is.”
For Peppard, the program is a passion and the growth of the students a definite sign of success. “This group of students is really ready to make a huge leap forward,” he says and explains that returning with many of the same students to this year’s conference was done very intentionally to “build the capacity and knowledge of the group.” The long-term goal is to expand the number of students involved, however, and increase the number of students able to attend future events through creative fundraising.
A 13-year participant of the program, Peppard describes the primary focus of the program in West Grand as an effort to cultivate “collective respect, student inclusion, and an anti-bullying norm.” And anti-bullying events are already on the books, including a visit from MMA fighter and activist Jonathan Alsheimer. “We are really focused on telling our individual stories also,” he continues. “Accreditation is just a small piece of a school’s story. But we are the product of our people, not our test scores.” He intends to conduct this storytelling through social media, newsletters, pep rallies, and the #WeAreWestGrand talk show. “The program is such a great fit in the district. I’m really excited about how our staffulty has embraced the ideas and are really working o n recognition especially. We’re all working on catching students doing right rather than wrong.”
Peppard himself was recently recognized by the program, being inducted into the Jostens Renaissance Hall of Fame. “The passion and dedication of Dr. Peppard and educators all over the world are the driving force in impacting students’ academic performance, attendance and behavior,” said Mike Wolfe, Vice President of Jostens Renaissance Education. “It is the highest honor you can receive from Jostens,” replies Peppard, when asked about it. “But I struggle to put into words what it means to me. I see it as a beginning point to helping even more schools and communities to foster the culture necessary for student success.”