Engage, Empower, Excel

Around three months old, our daughter energetically started to engage with the rest of her new family. Now that she could see a little more clearly and was a little more self-aware, she would burble and coo any chance she saw us, craning her neck to ensure that we not only heard her but saw her as well. And when she would hear her big brother’s voice from across the room, she would track and lock in on him and start babbling specifically for his benefit.

At five months now, she happily chirps during her waking hours in the family room, and if she doesn’t receive a response, there are sometimes small (and increasingly larger) signs of frustration when she is not acknowledged. She is engaging with us, trying to communicate with us as she observes the rest of the family doing the same thing. Now, as much as I would like to think my daughter is special (spoiler alert: she is), I do recognize that Stella is just like other five-month-old infants: these are developmental milestones that she should be hitting. Regardless of that, we still marvel at her desire to engage with us. We encourage it, and we expect it.

That said, why don’t we encourage and expect a similar kind of engagement when children are not five months but 15 years old? And I don’t mean students with their heads down, zeroed in on a screen (although this certainly could apply); rather, I’m referring to student engagement in high school. We marvel when it does occur because we have become so accustomed to disconnection that when it does happen, we are unmistakably in wonder of it. The point here is that when students enter high school, they are too often not engaged. They lack an emotional involvement or commitment to their learning or the subject at hand; interactions can be limited to their Mead notebook. The only conversations or discussions they have might only be at lunch. This surely conjures a drab portrait of high school academics, and not necessarily and entirely inaccurate one (in fact, it is likely one that you might recall from when you were in school with all of its tidy rows of desks).

But schools don’t need to be this way. And thankfully schools are beginning to change how they do business.

When I hosted my first meet and greet event with the community to share my vision for Independence, I began by asking parents the following question: what business was Walt Disney in? Everyone had the expected responses. Animation. Movies. Theme parks. While all of that might be true, when he was asked that question, Mr. Disney’s response was simple and unexpected: the happiness business. His vision was that he wanted visitors to his parks to be happy—from the moment they got there, through lunch, and even when they left. And if they weren’t happy, that signaled there was a problem that needed to be addressed.

So that night I shared in a similar way that my business is not simply “school.” Rather, I am in the engagement business. What that means to me is that I want students to be engaged with significant content and authentic problems. I want students to be engaged with each other—both in small groups, collaborative groups, and with the larger student body. I want to staff the building with teachers who will engage and inspire students as well as facilitate their engagement with a larger environment, to help them make meaningful contributions to the world. I also want students to be engaged in the new schools process—and part of that will begin next week as Mr. Rogers and I will be visiting students during advisories, resource periods, and lunch blocks to talk with them about their ideas and their hopes for Independence, forming Ambassador Teams, and building relationships with our future students. And once we are in our school a year from now, I want students to also be engaged in what is unique about the American high school experience: a wide variety of clubs, activities, and extra-curricular and co-curricular activities that appeal to a wide range of interests and talents.

In the coming months, I will be looking to continue engaging with the Independence community, both through this blog as well as different meet and greet events. In the coming blog posts, I will elaborate more on this notion of “engagement” as well as touch on the other two aspects to the vision for Independence High School. And along the way, among other topics, I will also highlight business partnerships that have already started to help us with a variety of needs that new schools typically have.

Lastly, to engage with us, please follow us on social media and email if you have questions. Also, please come out to see us at our meet and greets, which will be advertised on the school’s website and through social media!