Uniting the School: new initiative aims to better the student experience

The 2020-21 “school year” wasn’t what anybody expected it to be. Between online classes and social distancing regulations, students and teachers were forced to adapt to a less than desirable high school experience.

But while the 2020 school year was anything but ordinary, it offered a unique opportunity to reevaluate the school’s reputation and legacy. Science teacher Brittany Smith worked with colleagues, social studies teacher Dustin Leochner, P.E. teacher Anthony Orrick and business teacher Michael Moss to develop the Student Experience Focus Group.

“I think the main goal of this student focus group is to enhance the high school experience here at Southwest,” Smith said. “We want [our school] to be a place where people are proud to go … that’s what we’re aiming for in this focus group. How can we accomplish that as teachers? How can we accomplish that as students? Administrators? How do we make sure that every student is having a great experience at Southwest?”

Teachers and students alike have expressed concern about the lack of school spirit and support between departments; primarily between athletics and the arts.

To combat this, the focus group is made up of students from various programs and activities. Smith said it was important to include multiple student perspectives on this issue.

“We as teachers, and as adults, want to make sure that high school is a good experience,” Smith said. “The best people to tell us how to make that experience good is the students.”

Senior Sydney Gilman represents forensics in the focus group, but she is also involved in other activities, including Repertory Theatre, Chamber Singers and Trebleaires.

“I feel supported by a lot of the other arts departments,” Gilman said. “But I feel like the bridge between arts and sports is still kind of bumpy . . . besides some wrestlers at ‘Mamma Mia,’ I haven’t seen sports kids at the musicals.”

Sophomore Gavin Grant is not in the focus group, but is involved in football, lacrosse, track and field and FCA.  While he acknowledges that he and other athletes can do more to support the arts, he said he feels very supported by his school and community.

“[I feel supported by other departments at Southwest], especially the band,” Grant said. “They play at all of our home [football] games and are a big part of the Southwest tradition.”

Smith said she thinks students are willing to support one another, but are not sure of the best way to do so.

“I think they are just unsure,” Smith said. “Like, if I’m a football player, how do I make it known that I’m supporting the ceramics guru?”

The Student Experience Focus Group is aiming to fix this problem by creating an identity the community can rally behind. Smith and other leaders in the focus group think this common identity is what is necessary to unify the school.

“I don’t think [Southwest] has an identity right now. Yeah, every year we come up with a new theme, [yet] we never stick with one,” Smith said. “[We need to] come up with something that is unifying. Something that everybody can get behind.”

When developing an identity, it’s important to consider the school’s current perception. Smith said oftentimes perception is reality, and the way people perceive Southwest can and will help the focus group create a positive image.

“I’m pretty sure we’re the ‘rich kid’s school’ in everybody else’s mind,” Gilman said. “I mean, I guess that’s kind of true, but we live in a suburb of Kansas City. Johnson County is pretty well-off.”

Smith said the school’s unique aspects are what makes it a great place to be.

“We are the weirdest family that you could possibly think of,” Smith said. “We’re out here by ourselves, but we are a family. I think [Southwest] is more closely knit than some of the other big schools. We don’t have as many people. We have fewer teachers, fewer students, so I think we can get to know each other better. We’re just like a cool bunch of weirdos.”

One thing that makes the school unique is its small size and population. The other district high schools outnumber Southwest by almost 500 students. Capitalizing on this fact and our “sense of community” in Gilman’s words, may be the answer to a number of problems, but specifically the “lack of support” previously mentioned.

“We have a lot of work to do with finding the connection between sports and the arts,” Gilman said. “It’s been divided for so long. But I think the [focus group] will help a lot. I’m having a lot of fun at the games. I’m sure experiencing a new activity will be fun for other students, too.”

The focus group is dedicated to developing a more positive student experience for current and future students.

“Whether it’s a sports kid, an arts kid and music kid or whatever kid, we need something that we can all rally behind, then that would be an identity that we could be proud of,” Smith said.