This post was written by Ron Tucker, principal, Bayless Junior High School, St. Louis, MO

In this era of high-stakes testing and ever-increasing accountability, educators across the country have become familiar with the term “as evidenced by” when it comes to defending their school improvement plans. While testing is important, we know that developing healthy, responsible students is a mandate upon which we cannot compromise. As a native of the “Show-Me State,” I look for “evidence” that we are continually attempting to build a safe, caring school community that promotes tolerance for all of our citizens.

Bayless Junior High School is the most culturally diverse school in Missouri. We have transformed our school into a caring community that strives to celebrate both our students’ similarities as well as their differences, the process of which assisted our school in earning both State and National School of Character recognition. We continuously seek answers the following questions:

  • Why bother building a caring community?
  • How do we start building relationships?
  • How do we teach tolerance?
  • How do we know we’re making a difference?

Mark Twain said, “Necessity is the mother of taking chances.” After the faculty and I reviewed our rapidly-changing demographics six years ago, it became apparent we had to take a chance and do something. Currently, 50 percent of our students speak English as a second language, 62 percent receive free and/or reduced lunch, and 20 percent have individual education plans. In addition to responding to the typical issues associated with mixing various creeds, colors, races and socio-economic backgrounds within an adolescent melting pot otherwise known as a “financially-challenged suburban junior high school,” we knew we also had to provide for students who were struggling with the breakdown of their nuclear families, mental illness, depression, suicide, and teenage sexual exploration/promiscuity. We realized to make an impact upon our kids, we needed to build relationships – one at a time – among our students that emphasize trust in a caring community.

To begin this process, the faculty, staff and students identified our core character values – respect and responsibility – which continue to serve as the characteristic goals of good relationships at BJHS. Shortly thereafter, a student committee created The Touchstone. A touchstone is used to measure the quality of precious metals. The BJHS Touchstone is used to measure the quality of not only our character education initiative, but also the roles and responsibilities we each have in forging the relationships needed to continually improve our school. The Touchstone is recited each morning to reinforce what we believe respectful and responsible relationships and behaviors look like:

At Bayless Junior High, we take the high road. We take pride in our school. We use kind words and actions, listen thoughtfully, and stand up for ourselves and others. We show respect and take responsibility for our learning. We are Bayless Junior High!”

In an attempt to teach tolerance among our diverse students, the staff and I recognized that we needed to respect the way our students learn. Again, to paraphrase Twain, it required us to take a chance. The kids who attend our school are very different from those who attend middle schools just a few miles away; therefore, we teach them differently. Ten BJHS faculty members volunteered to pilot an ELL program for the state, known as the Missouri SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) Initiative. Due to the success of this pilot program, which emphasizes teachers intentionally causing students to read, write, speak and listen to one another, SIOP became the instructional model for the entire school. The increased communication among students not only improved state assessment scores, but also increased our students’ understanding and tolerance for one another and their cultures.

We know our efforts are paying off in a number of ways, ranging from improvements in student test scores, attendance rates and parent survey results, to a decrease in failing grades and disciplinary incidents. Just as important, though, are the numerous authentic opportunities our students and teachers now routinely pursue to promote our school as a caring community that embraces tolerance.

I’d love to hear how your school provides opportunities for students and staff to emb