Mahopac High STRIVEs to Improve its Culture and Climate

The school honored students who helped create a film about STRIVE. Pictured are some of those students: Juliet Sanchez, Olivia DeStephano, Cooper Aquilino, Tanner McCracken and Patrick Salerno. Credits: Bob Dumas

MAHOPAC, N.Y.— Mahopac High School students and staff are “striving” to improve the school’s culture and climate.

The high school has created a new initiative—STRIVE, which stands for safety, taking responsibility, respect, integrity and valuing experience.

“This is something that the high school has been creating over the past two years,” School Superintendent Dr. Dennis Creedon said. “A positive climate in the high school is critical if we are going to have students perform at an optimal level.”

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MHS assistant principal April Ljumic gave a presentation on the STRIVE program at the Board of Education’s Jan. 12 meeting. She told the board the idea for STRIVE was born during the 2014-15 school year and was a product of the school’s Climate Committee, which is made up of teacher volunteers, clinicians, school counselors and administrators.

“[They] are an invaluable team of professionals,” Ljumic said. “They work very hard and are dedicated to a positive school climate. They are tireless in their efforts.”

Ljumic told the board that the goal of STRIVE is to improve the school’s climate and culture, improve student outcomes (socially, emotionally and academically) and prepare students to be global citizens.

“It embodies the spirit of the Mahopac community and the core of the high school’s values,” she said. “It is an infusion of positive energy and it now permeates through the entire building—in our halls, in our classrooms, in our cafeterias and in our media center. It’s just a really special thing to see in action.”

Ljumic said other schools throughout the district already have similar programs in place to make students better citizens, so creating one at the high school level made sense.

“We are trying to create a continuum, a K-through-12 experience because the students at our elementary schools are already doing it, she explained, citing programs such as Fulmar’s Finest and Kindness Counts. “They are seeing wonderful success. They are [also] feeling it at the middle school with CARES, and we wanted them to be able to really feel it when they got to the high school and have that transition.”

Ljumic said considerable effort and research went into creating STRIVE.

“We spent a lot of time analyzing data,” she said. “We pulled our discipline data for the past couple of years. We asked our staff questions, [such as] what are the behaviors you want to see in your classrooms? What do you want to see in the hallways, the cafeteria, the library and in the gym? We held focus groups and had these discussions and then compiled all the data and crunched the numbers and came up with…our core values and what they mean to us at Mahopac High School.”

The STRIVE program focuses on three different facets: Defining schoolwide expected behaviors and values; illustrating positive expectations and behaviors that the staff would like to see; and providing a common language for consistency in those expectations.

“It is for whether [students are] in the classroom, on the athletic field or in a book nook or in the hallways,” Ljumic said. “How do we want them to interact with each other? How do we want them to interact with us and how were we going to interact with them?”

From the classroom to the buses to cyberspace, just about any location a student may be found has its expected behaviors spelled out for each of STRIVE’s core values.

But the key, Ljumic said, is to keep the STRIVE message in front of both the students and the staff and immerse them in it on a daily basis. To do that, the school created lots of signage and swag, such as lanyards and pens.

“We wanted it to be part of every student’s life from the minute they walk in the building, so there is signage all over about STRIVE,” she said. “What it means to be a STRIVE student in the library, and what it means to be one in the hallway, and what it means when they are using the charging stations or one of the computers in the computer lab.

“And our staff are ‘STRIVing’ it too,” she added. “They are wearing STRIVE lanyards. And every student was given a STRIVE pen when they came into the building, and our staff got the pens, too.”

Ljumic said STRIVE is not just about staff teaching students the behaviors they want to see, but also using the STRIVE language in everyday interactions. The four objectives for doing that are: teach, acknowledge, reinforce and monitor.

“We want to notice when [students] do something well and we want to acknowledge it and positively reinforce it at all times,” Ljumic said. “What you pay attention to is what you will see more of. It comes down to building positive relationships and celebrating it every day.”

To do that, teachers and staff hand out STRIVE cards to students for good behavior and then students can put that card in the STRIVE box for a monthly raffle.

“[Through that raffle], we can give out gift cards every month courtesy of the school’s PTO,” Ljumic said. Each month, one card is given to a freshman, a sophomore, a junior, a senior and a staff member who gave out a card.

“Teachers can nominate students monthly, be it for academics, for community or for service to the school, and we then have a little recognition ceremony and the student gets certificates,” she said. “We have pizza party and we sit as a community—including the teacher who recognized the student—and as a group, we celebrate their success.”

STRIVE officially kicked off last October in grades 9 through 12.

“In English classes, the students spent the day learning about STRIVE, living it and breathing it—interacting in collaborative activities where they got to watch videos…where they learned how to respond to certain situations,” Ljumic said.

As part of the research done for the STRIVE program, the Climate Committee conducted a survey and asked students to rate the school in a variety of categories.

“We are doing pretty good,” Ljumic said. “We have room to grow, but the kids gave a pretty good overall rating of their school. Overwhelmingly the students feel safe [in school] and that is a testament to the district and the building.”

The survey asked students if there was a staff member in the building they could trust and nearly 70 percent responded “yes.”

“I think that is wonderful and says a lot about our faculty,” Ljumic said.

The Climate Committee also asked the students to declare and commit to a personal goal for STRIVE for this school year.

“We asked them to do something obtainable, something that they could do for the year, something they could strive for and commit to,” Ljumic said.

Some examples the students gave include, “share a kind word;” “help other students when it looks like they are in trouble;” and “strive to be respectful.”

The staff was asked to make similar commitments.

“It boils down to building connections, building community and building relationships,” Ljumic noted.

Ljumic said that members of the Climate Committee have attended several meetings and workshops over the past year on putting together programs such as STRIVE and have received a lot of positive feedback about what the district has created.

“There are not a lot of high schools that have been able to implement positive school culture and climate activities like we have,” she said. “And we serve as a pretty good model for other high schools, from what I hear.”

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