By Andrew Campanella with Savanna Buckner
Peer pressure may have a bad reputation, but a healthy culture of mentorship and example-setting is a force for good.
That’s what’s happening with students at Simon G. Atkins Academic & Technology High School, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Older students at the public magnet school go out of their way to set a positive example for younger students, building a culture of kindness.
Principal Joe Childers says it’s what the high-performing school is most proud of.
“The kids all come together and learn to respect each other and that’s a life skill,” said Childers. “A student can’t be successful without learning to work with and be friends with people very different from themselves.”
Peer accountability has become so much a part of the culture that in-school suspension is a rarity.
“We tend to call it the Atkins way,” says Childers. “If students are getting out of line a little bit in the hallways, other students will say something to them. The adults don’t have to intervene as much, which is really important, because that peer pressure is everything.”
Part of the secret formula for Atkins’ culture of kindness is recognizing and celebrating all students who participate at school, whatever their passion may be.
For some students, that’s STEM.
Magnet schools are public schools that offer advanced classes or deeper study of particular subjects beyond what’s usually available through traditional public schools. At Atkins, the specialty is STEM. All students commit to taking at least four courses in engineering, computer game design, biotechnology, or another STEM series.
But the school also has a “phenomenally strong fine arts program” and music program, said Childers. In fact, students can earn varsity letters in 40 different activities at Atkins!
While about 15 of those letters are for athletics, students can also earn letters for participating in the chess team, the cybersecurity team, Science Olympiad, the marching band, the poet laureate program, or the jazz ensemble.
“You can see a student walking down the hall with a letter jacket on. One sleeve may have patches for football and tennis, and the other side may have patches for chess team or math team or quiz bowl team,” described Childers. “So kids get to connect in a lot of different ways.”
Celebrating the different ways that students connect at the school fosters a positive community, and also supports academic success.
“When kids enjoy where they are, if kids feel engaged, that’s half the battle,” said Childers. “If kids have an interest or feel connected, they’re going to try harder.”
The school also has a modified school uniform policy to help students cut down on distractions and worry less about labels.
“I think sometimes there are misconceptions that magnet schools are elitist schools,” said Childers. “But I think if you came and walked the halls at Atkins, you would very quickly realize that’s not the case.”
What is the case? It’s that Simon G. Atkins Academic & Technology High School is making a positive difference in kids’ lives not just with its STEM offerings, but also with its culture of participation. I’m so optimistic when I hear about great leaders and student ambassadors like those at Atkins!
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