Guest column: Fostering hope and engagement in local teens | AspenTimes.com

Guest column: Fostering hope and engagement in local teens

Tamara Tormohlen
Guest column

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014

Basalt Middle School Principal Jeremy Voss was watching a group of seventh-grade girls playing volleyball recently and noticed that one of the players was struggling to spike the ball.

"I can't do it!" she exclaimed, and her teammates replied in unison: "Yet!"

This meant a great deal to the principal, because the players were actually repeating a sort of mantra for the school. Voss and his staff go to great lengths to promote effort, perseverance and grit — qualities that enable students to overcome obstacles and eventually solve a problem or learn a skill.

At Basalt Middle School, teachers and staff routinely respond to "I don't know how to do this" with an encouraging "Yet!" Voss knew that at least some of the volleyball players were making fun of the rallying cry, but he added, "I just felt as though they were adopting the language, and that's something I look for."

I share this anecdote because it reflects a culture and philosophy that Voss has nurtured at the school, with compelling results. Earlier this month, Basalt Middle School was named a 2015 Colorado Trailblazer School to Watch. This recognition came only after site visits and interviews by a team from Colorado Schools to Watch. For several years running, the school's standardized-test scores have shown impressive growth, but Voss said, "Our work around mindset is probably the work that gets us noticed."

Here's what Diane Lauer, state coordinator of Colorado Schools to Watch, said about the school: "Basalt demonstrates that high performance is the result of intentional focus on the whole child. A personalized environment that cultivates persistence, self-inquiry (and) goal setting within a healthy, social-emotional and intellectual environment results in a dynamic school where students thrive."

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Last week in this space, I wrote about a nationwide poll of U.S. students in grades five through 12 that found only about half were "hopeful" about the future and "engaged" in school. With its emphasis on character traits and social-emotional development, Basalt Middle School is creatively countering this disillusionment among our young people.

The more than 2,000 Roaring Fork Valley students who took the Gallup Student Poll posted a higher percentage of hopeful and engaged students than the national average, but only by a few points. Trailblazers such as Voss and the Basalt Middle School staff are demonstrating how to turn this tide.

Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs is another example of a school going the extra mile to engage students and inspire hope.

According to Principal Leigh McGown, "The bottom line for us is no significant learning occurs without a significant relationship."

Accordingly, the heart of the school is the advisory system, where each faculty member is grouped with about 18 students, for whom the adviser becomes both a mentor and an advocate.

Advisers at Yampah Mountain instill the idea that learning and growing are all about mindset.

As McGown put it, "You can always get better at something; it doesn't matter if you're not the best now. That includes getting along with people — it includes everything."

Yampah Mountain is a destination for students who, for a variety of reasons, have run into problems or disengaged from other schools in the region. The school aims to steer these kids back toward an attitude that will set the stage for future success. Relationships are key to the process, and the students also are empowered to make decisions and take responsibility for their own learning.

"I think kids want to engage in their learning — they like to learn, and they're curious," McGown said. "It's sort of opening it back up."

When asked how the school measures success, McGown pointed to Yampah Mountain's results on the Gallup Student Poll: Sixty-three percent of students reported they're "engaged" in school. And that's a student group that entered the front door with the opposite label.

Seniors at Yampah Mountain and other schools have something new to engage them, as well. In late February, Colorado Mountain College notified high school seniors in the college's service area that they're pre-approved for admission upon graduation. Furthermore, seniors who meet certain criteria can earn a $1,000 scholarship to pay more than half of their first-year tuition costs.

This program will provide an extraordinary boost to young career-minded adults in the region and will absolutely move the needle on the hope meter.

Studies have shown that hope and engagement are important indicators of both academic achievement and overall success in life. When our schools and colleges nurture these character traits in our young people — in addition to academic skills — they certainly deserve recognition.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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