In New York’s Warwick Valley Central School District sits a second-grade boy who loves to draw. His inspirations are many, but part of the reason he’s able to draw so well at such a young age is simply because he’s “just figuring it out” himself. “I want to draw crazy things, like time travel, outer space, aliens, robots, and definitely scientists,” he said. “Maybe I can make picture books!”
He’s one of several students who have been selected to be interviewed by WVCSD Superintendent David Leach and his communications team to be featured in the “Superintendent’s Spotlight,” a series of articles that showcase individual students’ academic and personal achievements.
At the start of each school year, they conduct faculty meetings where administrators remind staff members about Superintendent’s Spotlight and its purpose, which is to recognize students who may often go unnoticed.
“Students come with many talents and gifts,” says Leach. “So we put that in the hands of our staff. We emphasize that we don’t want to recognize the same student repeatedly. We really want to make sure that we recognize students equitably.”
Leach says this idea has had a positive impact on their school culture at a time when K12 education can be really divisive.
“There’s a skepticism regarding public education in general at times,” he says. “It’s helped us to place a unifying focus on our students.”
The articles aren’t only published on the district’s website but in the local newspapers as well. In addition to showcasing outstanding students who deserve recognition for their accomplishments, Leach says it gives them an opportunity to strategically promote certain school programs, curriculum and even the mission of the district.
“For example, we’ll often reference in our Superintendent’s Spotlight our portrait of a graduate,” he says. “Maybe it’s through a student who’s demonstrating being an ethical or global citizen. Or, another student who is a great communicator or one who’s a problem-solver. We use it as an opportunity to educate the public about our mission but through the eyes of our students.”
But most importantly, it supports their efforts to motivate and inspire students through peer recognition beyond the traditional measurement of academic success—mainly intelligence—because “true giftedness really is as unique as your fingerprint,” says Leach.
“So what does that look like? If a student is an artist, for example, then let’s do a Superintendent’s Spotlight on that student! What are the dispositions and competent skills they’re demonstrating? Let’s show some of their artwork as part of the story, too.”
He adds that it’s been his mission to ensure the visibility of students who are often overlooked.
“We’re not looking to do the fifth piece on the valedictorian as wonderful as that is,” he says. “But what about that student who maybe is an A, D student up at the high school but is an accomplished musician? Maybe they just donated hair to an organization, or they’re working at the local food pantry. That’s the impetus behind this.”
Another added benefit of this idea is the role model component that comes into play when a student sees their peer being recognized for their accomplishments. In this case, it’s not always the starting quarterback or the president of the national honor society who’s being celebrated. Instead, it could be the classmate who sits in the back of the class who rarely raises their hand. Or, a student who goes the extra mile to help out a friend. It’s a testament to the power of encouragement, no matter your background.
“We had a piece just the other day on a boy in elementary school who’s helping his peer’s Spanish pronunciation,” says Leach.
Fostering a positive culture outside school walls is important, too. Leach likes to send letters to each of the families whose child was featured in the Superintendent’s Spotlight with the article attached congratulating them and sharing his pride for that student.
Additionally, many families throughout the district no longer have children attending public schools. Many of the locals are 55 and older but still have the opportunity to play an important role in the decisions being made for public education. Leach says the Superintendent’s Spotlight helps keep them engaged.
“They’re voting on our bond referendums and our school budgets,” he says. “Many of them when they see me in town tell me that they enjoy these pieces in particular because they can be written in an engaging way different from a traditional article you might find in your local newspaper.”
But above all, students ought to be recognized for their successes regardless of how small they might seem. At the administrative level, ideas like this are another way to show your community how your students are leading by example according to the district’s mission and strategic plan.
“Regularly featuring students’ accomplishments, I think, provides a level of transparency in the district in terms of what the district’s educational goals are,” says Leach. “It’s one thing to have a strategic plan that’s living in a binder or on a webpage no one’s going to look at. It’s another to say, ‘Here’s our strategic plan alive. Here are some examples. And it’s through you and your neighbor’s child.'”