(Looking for) A Few Good Schools

Beta Sites Wanted!

Back in the Old Normal – 6 months ago, give or take – an early 90s Hyde alum reached out to me to talk about his efforts as president of the PTA of his children’s elementary school. At one point, he quipped, “Malcolm, we gotta get some Hyde up in here!” Since our conversation, I have visited the school a couple of times and we are indeed working to, well, get some Hyde up in there.

So, I am writing in search of schools that might – whether they know it or not – be looking for the same thing. What’s more, for a limited time, I am offering it for FREE!

Hyde Discovery Process
To explain, let’s go back 25+ years to a small Pennsylvania town. On Day #1 as principal of Halifax Middle School, Bob Hassinger found himself wincing as he observed some of his eighth graders cutting the lunch line and cordoning off sections of the cafeteria where only they, the self-appointed “cool kids,” could sit. After concluding his first week with the feeling that he had a culture problem on his hands, he reached out to his superintendent.

Bob Hassinger

The superintendent suggested that Bob attend an upcoming presentation in nearby Harrisburg by a Maine educator (Joe Gauld) who would be talking about his new book on character development (Character First – The Hyde School Difference). The talk, the book, follow-up discussions, and a visit to Bath with his faculty inspired Bob to create a Hyde-based program.  He launched the program in 1996, beginning with a measure that has evolved into a signature component of the Discovery Process: the reorganization of the school’s homerooms from their traditional grade-specific structure to a mixed-grade format of 14-16 students.

At first, the re-designed homeroom was controversial. Parents of 5th graders were reluctant to expose their children to the emerging social mores of 8th graders. They were also worried about bullying.  Conversely, the 8th graders didn’t want a bunch of 5th graders complicating their emergence as teenagers.  Before long, the initial resistance gave way to a fervent advocacy as students and teachers experienced a new culture, one both challenging and supportive, as they honored a common language (5 Words & Principles) and participated in 5 core activities:

  1. Intramurals & Team-Building – Challenge, teamwork, and sportsmanship.
    2. School-Wide Jobs – We all contribute to maintaining our school environment.
    3. Performing Arts – We push our comfort zones within a supportive atmosphere.
    4. Community Service – Concern for others
    5. “Clear the Decks” – Personal discussions about character development.

[Note to Hyde Alums: Sound familiar?]

Hyde-Brooklyn Kids Working on That Culture Thing

Beyond the kids and their teachers, parents liked the idea that all students felt safe, a sense of belonging, and none seemed to “slip thru the cracks.”

The results of Bob’s efforts were both immediate and dramatic. Within five years, Halifax Middle School earned the prestigious distinction as a “School of Character” by Character.org. Furthermore, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some neighboring communities (e.g., Upper Dauphin) adopted his program in their schools.

Beyond anecdotes, the data spoke for itself:

  • 40% decline in disciplinary incidents over 3 years at one school;
  • 85% parent satisfaction and 92% teacher approval at another;
  • Zero playground fights during an entire school year at another;
  • Budgetary cost savings of $50K at one school due to fewer costly suspensions;
  • Substantive improvement in reading and math test scores.

As for how I entered the mix, I am embarrassed to admit that 20 years passed before I visited Halifax or the other participating schools. Finally, in 2017, I took a tour of all of them. No sooner had I arrived before an unexpected encounter with a small-for-his-age 5th grader sold me:

“Are you from that place in Maine?”
“Yes I am.”
“Are you here to cancel the program?”
(Caught by surprise) “No way. I just wanted to visit and see what you’re all doing.”
“Good, because I used to be afraid to go to school. I was afraid of what was going to happen to me on the way to school. I was afraid of what might happen to me on the playground. And I was afraid of what might happen on the way home. Now I like to go to school. The ‘big kids’ look out for me and it’s like a family.”
(Kid, you had me at “used-to-be-afraid.)

Halifax Slogan

How You Can Help
Shortly after this visit, a group of us met in Pennsylvania and later participated in a Design Sprint in Bath to explore ways that we might “scale this thing.” Imagining a re-invented homeroom for middle schools, we envision a train-the-trainer model with modules and lesson plans designed in accordance with character-based group dynamics, common language, and the aforementioned engagement activities.  Design and production of these modules are underway as I write.  Our plan is to launch 6+- beta sites in September of 2020. These sites will receive the program free-of-charge in exchange for maintaining systemic data on the impact of the program on school culture. We then plan to open the program to the public school market in September of 2021.

So, if you know of any middle schools that might be interested in this program, I would love to hear from you. It might be the school your child attends, where a relative teaches, or the one right down the street.  Any school that wants to improve or develop its student culture is a great candidate. Please reach out to me with any suggestions.

As Bob developed the program at Halifax, he realized that kids often feel caught between what is right vs. what is cool.  This program doesn’t stop at helping kids choose the former over the latter. It helps them realize that right is indeed cool.

Onward, Malcolm