Conference in Groton highlights students' efforts to create a positive school culture

Groton — Guest Speaker Phil Campbell told students and teachers at a conference Wednesday at Fitch High School that all people, especially young people, are products of their environment and don't get to choose their parents, race, nationality, socio-economic status or zip code.

“We don’t get to choose any of those things, and so it’s up to us as leaders, both as educational leaders and as young student leaders, to make sure that every single person in this campus, every single person in your community, knows and understands they matter, they have value, they bring something to the table,” said Campbell, known as PC.

Campbell, an educator who helps schools improve their overall culture, was speaking at the Jostens Renaissance CT Collaborative conference that brought together students and staff from Fitch High School, Bacon Academy, Stonington, Old Saybrook and Morgan School, among others. Renaissance Education, a program with resources provided by Jostens, which sells graduation items such as yearbooks and class rings, focuses on creating a more positive climate and culture at schools.

For Campbell, the program is all about showing people they matter, whether that means smiling and waving to someone walking across campus looking down at their feet, or sitting with a kid who eats lunch alone. He said that when everyone on campus feels seen, heard and loved, then school culture is transformed.

Fitch students, who started a Renaissance club last year, presented to the attendees the initiatives they implemented to help create a positive atmosphere and make all students feel welcome.

The Fitch students in the Renaissance Crew, dressed in T-shirts that said "Fitch Falcons Caring More," gave tours around their school. They showcased a rock garden outside the school that says "Achieve More, Believe More, Care More"; the Zen room, where students can relax with bean bag chairs and soft lighting; and a board that displays students' birthdays each month, among other initiatives.

Raymond Valentin, 18, a Fitch High School senior, said the Renaissance Crew is about making sure every student has something positive to look forward to when they come to school.

"We want to make the school somewhere where students can feel like they're home and not somewhere they don't want to be," he said in an interview Wednesday.

Helen Berganza, 17, a senior at Fitch, said that during a day when students were encouraged to sit at lunch with someone they didn't know, she saw students bonding with different people and getting to know one another. She said the club is trying to make the school a better place and acknowledge more students.

"If you're feeling left out, Renaissance club just makes you feel like you're part of something," she said.

During the conference, Gayle Oko praised the students for incorporating components of the Sandy Hook Promise program, such as Start with Hello Week. Oko and Katrina Fitzgerald started a Sandy Hook Promise group in southeastern Connecticut for local people passionate about the national nonprofit's violence prevention program. 

The Renaissance Crew at Fitch started last year after about 30 students attended a conference on the Renaissance program at Maloney High School, said Casey Halliwell, an English teacher and yearbook adviser who also serves as an adviser to the Renaissance Crew. The club started with the theme of recognition and inclusiveness.

Halliwell said the club is trying to improve the school's climate and culture so students don't just feel like they have to be at school, but want to be there. If students want to be at school, they're more likely to be invested in activities and their education.

The students also said they want to help students from other schools start or expand Renaissance — and ensure that the club at Fitch continues, even after they graduate.

Fuquan Chapman, 16, a Fitch junior, said he wants to leave an impact so that when he graduates, other students can carry on with making the school look better and creating a positive vibe for everyone.

"Renaissance is a sense of community, and I think everybody needs that community," said Kah'ron Connor, 17, a Fitch High School senior, who added that everyone feels welcome when students work to better their schools.

The students and staff from the different schools plan to regroup at another conference in the spring to discuss the initiatives they implemented.

k.drelich@theday.com

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