On the Friday before winter break, a group of about 20 educators from Hopkins West Junior High gathered in their school’s flex space wearing holiday-themed sweaters and masks.
It’s been a difficult week and many say they’re ready for a break from work. Just a few days before their meeting, one of their students had a worrying episode in the school parking lot.
”We had a kid at dismissal completely melt down out in front of the buses — like mental health behavior I’ve only seen a couple times in my career,” said Principal Leanne Kampfe. “[The situation] couldn’t be contained by multiple grown men.”
Kampfe said she’s seen an increase in physical aggression all year, and many students seem to be struggling with short fuses, social and emotional maturity delays and mental health stresses.
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It’s not just Hopkins West. According to a recent statewide survey, both students and teachers in Minnesota have resoundingly agreed that mental health is a top concern and a growing one.
Kampfe is trying to get her school to do a reset of expectations on behavior. She’s been working to put together a social contract of sorts.
Unlike attempts at this sort of thing she’s been a part of in the past, she wants to make sure students are directly involved in resetting expectations.
“There’s a level of advocacy [from kids] of ‘I don’t have to do this. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’m not going to do this,’” Kampfe said. “So I think that’s why it’s been so important to involve students in this process. They do want to do the right thing. They do want to have a place where they feel seen and they feel safe. They just don’t trust we’ll do it for them.”
To start the process, Hopkins teachers polled every single student in the building on what they want in terms of their peers’ behavior as well as teacher behavior. Then Kampfe asked her building’s data specialist, Yvette Garcia, to go through the responses, code them and find some recurring themes.
“By creating this social contract, we create an environment that is more predictable based on the entire community’s values and beliefs — because they’ve all put their input in,” Garcia said.
But the process doesn’t stop there. Kampfe takes the qualitative data to a group of students on her principal’s advisory board to validate it. The idea is, in Kampfe’s words, to take what she’s “come up with through her lens and go back to people within the group that produced it who have the least amount of power.”
Kampfe’s advisory board of students is intentionally diverse — students of color, some with special needs. They look through what Kampfe and Garcia have put together and give their feedback, tweaking some of the categories and making sure school leaders really understand what it is students say they want.
By the time Kampfe meets with teachers, she has a list of student requests. Kids have said they want staff to be on time, keep hallways safe, trust them to do what’s expected, and ask questions before intervening when they don’t do what they’re supposed to.
“There’s quite a bit about safe physical movement,” Kampfe told her staff. “[Students are] wanting us to make sure that we are keeping the hallways safe … taking charge of that. That was a request.”
School staff break out into groups to discuss what students want, like — What does responsible versus respectful behavior mean? What’s the difference between setting healthy boundaries for students versus trying to control them?
The way Kampfe is using data to make sure everyone at the school, including students, has a say in the way things are done is a goal for the entire Hopkins district.
“It looks different at each school, but it is work all principals are engaged in,” said Hopkins communications director Jolene Goldade.
Some of Hopkins West’s attempts to use data in more equitable ways go back to 2020. In the fall of that year, Hopkins West was trying to figure out whether in-person or virtual learning would be best for their community. While many districts were putting out surveys to learn what families wanted, Hopkins West realized they needed to go deeper than a quick survey.
“We had to really take a step back to make sure that our response was based on equity — who has voice in the conversation?” said Assistant Principal Matt Johnson.
The district ended up spending extra time and effort to make sure they got responses from everyone in their community.
Now, the junior high’s current project of putting together a social contract is based on similar ideas.
In February, Kampfe gathered groups of students in her office to go over the final details of the contract. They’ve narrowed it down to three big ideas: Be safe, be responsible, be respectful.
Kampfe got the students to talk about what exactly it looks like to be responsible, safe and respectful in the hallway, in the cafeteria and during dismissal and arrival times. The students were not short of opinions.
“Not jumping on tables,” one student suggests.
“Keep your hands to yourself, wear a mask,” another added.
“Keep your phone put away,” said another.
Kampfe used their input to further polish the contract. Then, at the end of February, school staff began teaching the contract to students, focusing on one of the biggest problem areas first: school hallways.
By early March, Kampfe said it was still too soon to tell how well the contract was working to actually change the atmosphere in her building’s hallways. She said she expects to get data specialist Garcia working on more assessments to see how effectively it’s working.
But, in Kampfe’s mind, going through this whole process gives her and her staff confidence that they’re not just imposing authority on kids. She said she now knows that the students in her school want this.
“Creating something together is a potential step in starting to recreate what school could be. It’s not earth shattering. But it’s a small step in that their voices were included,” Kampfe said. “I hope we’re all empowered by it, we’re all working as a team. That’s how we’ll be most effective. Students need to feel like their voices are heard and adults feel like they know what their job is and it’s clear what we’re expecting from them.”