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Principle 3: Schools engage students who are challenging to contact.

The team at East Lower School, a middle school in Rochester led by Principal Tanya Wilson, has exceled in how they relentlessly choose to center and value direct input from the students and community it serves. 

“One of the pieces that schools often forget to do is bring the players to the table,” Wilson said. “But unless you have those who you’re serving with you making decisions, you’re missing those pieces.”  

During the pandemic, Wilson surveyed and had direct conversations with her students and parents. From those dialogues she made simple, and meaningful, changes to the school day. She shortened class periods to keep students engaged. Ringing the now metaphorical bell for class at even and easy to remember times like 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. Giving students a lengthier break between classes in case they needed to help out in their house or grab a snack.   

“It’s smart things like that that really make a difference,” Wilson said.  

A major part of that success came from the foundation of trust established long before the pandemic. Parents felt more comfortable calling and texting Wilson about hybrid learning anxieties because she’d established a relationship and shared her cellphone number. Even students moving on to high school reached out their middle school principal for support in navigating the new system.  

Over the summer of 2020, Wilson did pop-up, socially distanced Sweet Tea with Dr. T events around the neighborhood to get to know incoming students and parents.   

“It really is about relationships,” she said. “And I think the piece of like, ‘No we’ll come to you, you don’t have to come to us.