Rewiring the student body: Hampshire Regional students lead Rebuilding the Raiders initiative

  • Tyler Hetu, Stellina Simonelli and Eliza Warner, members of the Hampshire Regional Student Council, lead a meeting to plan the last Rebuilding the Raiders event of the school year. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Suzannah Buehlet, the VP of Hamsphire Regional Student Council as well as the senior class president and Liam Reynolds, the president of Student Council, talk about how Rebuilding the Raiders started. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Suzannah Buehlet, the VP of Hamsphire Regional Student Council as well as the senior class president and Liam Reynolds, the president of Student Council, talk about how Rebuilding the Raiders started. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Hannah Burke, Eliza Warner, Tyler Hetu, Sam Moran, Parker Pallante, Josie Taylor and Riley Marney, all members of the Student Council, greet the middle schoolers as they make their way out to the field where Rebuilding the Raiders Day 3 was taking place at Hampshire Regional. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rylee Joseph, left, watches as Rachel O’Connell reacts to a shot while playing cornhole during a Rebuilding the Raiders event organized by the Hampshire Regional Student Council on June 1. “It’s so fun and a great way to engage everyone and a great break from all the work at the end of the year,” O’Connell said. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Cody Gaida and Josh Angers go for the ball during a volleyball game during a Rebuilding the Raiders event organized by the Hampshire Regional Student Council on Wednesday, June 1, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Vanessa Reese,12, watches as Alexa Cortis finishes a chalk drawing during a Rebuilding the Raiders on June 1. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/6/2022 9:16:48 PM
Modified: 6/6/2022 9:14:38 PM

WESTHAMPTON — At the beginning of this school year, teachers and administrators noticed that Hampshire Regional middle and high school students were not interacting with each other very well.

To address the matter, school staff let students handle it themselves by facilitating discussions and workshops led by the Student Council. Those conversations have led to what Hampshire Regional High School Principal Lauren Hotz has dubbed a “kid-to-kid approach” in addressing behavioral issues through an initiative branded as Rebuilding the Raiders.

“We really wanted it to be where kids could talk to kids to get real input,” Hotz said. “I think if we want to rebuild our school culture and to get back what we have been at Hampshire, then the kids have to have a voice and we need to know how we’re doing to make this place a better place. Really, it’s the kids that we’re here for and I think it’s important we know how it’s going from their perspective.”

Disconnected

History and Social Science Program Leader Kelly Carpenter said she felt that everyone — teachers and administrators included — withdrew within themselves during the long period of isolation following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Returning to classrooms proved to be overwhelming for many, she said.

“They didn’t know how to ‘be human.’ They were so used to being alone and isolated that they didn’t know how to have conversations. They didn’t know how to just walk through the hall and say hello to others and be respectful and mindful of others,” Carpenter said.

“We were seeing a lot of behaviors we didn’t want to see and recognize that it wasn’t feeling like Hampshire to us. It wasn’t feeling like home, like it had felt before COVID.”

Not only did the students notice, Carpenter said they were the ones to bring it to administrators’ attention.

Liam Reynolds, for example, was a freshman when he started at Hampshire Regional. The now 18-year-old president of the Student Council said the first person to talk to him at the school was a senior and the second was a junior, a sign of how connected students were at the school regardless of age.

Reynolds described a more seamless feeling of community in attending the school before the onset of the pandemic. However, after two years of sustained online learning, communicating and even engaging in fun activities, he found that the atmosphere had changed in transitioning to school in person.

“There was almost a disconnect between everybody after we came back from two years online,” he said. “Coming in as a freshman to a new school, I could feel there was community, there was a ton of communication and camaraderie in between the grades, and it kind of just disappeared when school went online.”

When 18-year-old Suzannah Buehler returned to in-person learning, she recalled looking around and seeing tons of familiar faces, but many she had lost touch with.

“There were people I haven’t seen since sophomore year … We missed a very formative gap in people’s lives and we just had to jump back to normal,” she said.

In addition to that, students went to school for an entire year without meeting a teacher or administrator in person. She also noted that returning to school with a new principal, after Principal Kristen Smidy accepted a superintendent role at Gateway Regional High School, meant both staff and students had to adjust to new expectations.

“There was a general lack of respect for each other and lack of connection — nothing was malicious, but frankly, many of us didn’t know how to interact with each other anymore,” she said.

Thirteen-year-old Aidan Conklin said remote learning was particularly challenging at times, and not only because of connectivity issues. Courses like health were confusing over the computer, he said.

When the pandemic struck, he was still attending elementary school and returned to the larger Hampshire Regional school district building.

“The last normal year of school for some of these kids was in fourth grade. A fourth grader is considered a little kid and by seventh grade, you’re expected to be so different. That’s a huge disruption,” Reynolds said. “There’s such a huge difference between communicating online versus in person. For so long, everything was online: We’d go to Zoom meetings, we’d email with friends, everything was text, social media, and then you come back to school in person and you’re expected to have these in-depth discussions in class and form new connections, and it’s really, really difficult when most of your communication has been online.”

Teachers felt it too.

English teacher and English Program Leader Kim Bush described remote learning as “impossible” with students distracted by cellphones and gaming monitors. With her husband working from home and her two sons participating in remote learning, Bush left her home and went to the Hampshire Regional school district building to teach classes via Zoom.

“Remote learning is incredibly difficult because there are so many subtleties you lose out on,” Bush said. “Trying to hold a student’s attention in a Zoom class was really very difficult for me, and I think it was difficult for them, too. I just don’t feel like it’s a great teaching and learning model.”

Student-led initiative

To kick things off, the entire 40-member Student Council began brainstorming ideas on how to rebuild their school community, Buehler said.

Council members took their annual retreat at the start of the academic year as an opportunity to plan the first and part of the second day of Rebuilding the Raiders.

During the first one-hour session, students were surveyed through a questionnaire that was semi-tailored to each grade, Buehler said. To survey them, students split into groups by grade, and then into groups of 10, led by roughly four Student Council members. They were asked questions about whether they felt welcomed to the school, if they could communicate with their teachers or peers, and how connected they felt to the school as a whole.

Once the answers were collected, the council talked about the answers with the group. Teachers were not in the room.

“We thought this message would come across better from students — even if we know it’s well-meaning — it could come off as a little condescending if you have adults bringing it to you … it can be intimidating,” she said.”We thought we could deliver it in a way that’s relatable to and for students.”

Although not every group was talkative, Reynolds said that many eighth grade students tended to be very vocal in their struggles to acclimate to the school and addressed why they thought there were issues and how they thought they could change things.

He also led a group of 10th graders who were to talk about something they were uncomfortable doing and then find a way to do it.

“I think for me at least, holding the discussion and asking the difficult questions, it helps me to answer them for myself. As for leading the discussion, it was almost internal, I could ask these questions to the group, but I was really asking it to myself as well, and leading that discussion helped me to work out what I thought the problems in the school community were and ways we could fix it,” he said.

From there, the council took those conversations and translated them into workshops that fit needs ranging from addressing social discomforts and anxieties such as how to talk to a teacher to identifying stress management and time management strategies. Stress-related workshops also included a craft like making a stress ball.

Workshops included stations that hosted activities and interactive video games such as Just Dance for students to engage and have fun with their friends. All activities were supervised and even included interaction with teachers.

This past week, the third session of the Rebuilding the Raiders was capped off with a day for students to play and have fun with their friends — from kickball and cornhole to gabbing and giggling with friends.

“It was a really good way for kids to have fun and be with each other and wrap up the year and the initiative — it was just kids being kids,” Hotz said.

The program is slated to continue for at least the next two years.

While teachers and students have admitted they’ve noticed some positive changes as a result of the program, Bush said the schools will be feeling the effects of the pandemic and remote learning for years to come.

“It has impacted kids academically, emotionally and psychologically ... But initiatives like this where the kids feel supported by the teachers, school and classmates — everything positive can come from that when the kids feel safe in their school,” she said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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