GREENVILLE — High school today is not what it was yesterday.
As a public institution of higher learning, with teenagers shuffling from class to class on an hourly basis, the culture and world inside the doors of what many refer to as the “best four years of your life,” is an ever-changing whirlwind of new experiences found each and every day.
But that culture, filled with children who are learning to become adults, is not always a favorable one, and students, faculty and administration at high schools throughout Montcalm County are ready to make a change.
In a collaborative effort between the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) and all seven public school districts in the county, a new program has been introduced to combat the everyday occurrences of school bullying, violence, peer pressuring and poor attitudes by installing a new culture.
The new movement, officially titled “Making it Cool to be Kind,” is now being implemented at every high school in the county. Professional speaker Laurie Stewart of LA Stewart Presentations has been visiting each school, meeting with small groups of students who have been selected to help lead the effort of establishing a new culture focused on trust, commitment, accountability and positive interactions.
“We want to make being kind a cool thing here at the school,” said Jared Loomis, 17, a junior at Greenville High School. “That’s something we’ve realized is a big problem, as kids are constantly being cut down and bullied. That’s something that needs to be changed.”
Loomis is one of eight students selected in Greenville to lead the new campaign. After meeting with Stewart in February, members of the Greenville “Cool to be Kind” group said they are confident they can make a lasting change because the new effort will be student-driven.
“I think there will be a greater impact if it’s the students who are taking a lead and showing other students that it is cool to be kind,” said sophomore Brandon Loiselle, 15. “I see it throughout the community. There is bullying and it needs to be fixed.”
A collaborative effort
Planning for the “Making it Cool to be Kind” movement began last spring when a group of school officials representing the MAISD and the seven school districts came together to talk about existing programs and student-led groups that help create positive environments.
According to MAISD Executive Assistant Penny Dora, it was then that the idea transpired of how creating one common movement in all seven high schools countywide could send a powerful message about the importance of treating others with respect and being kind to one another. A decision was made to bring Stewart into the picture to help lead the effort.
“Stewart is a nationally known trainer from the Kalamazoo area who has done extensive work with high schools, colleges and universities around the country,” Dora said. “Her specialty is working with teenagers and young adults to embrace the very critical message we can share with one another, as human beings, that we all deserve to be treated with respect no matter who we are and that we are each unique individuals with our own special characteristics and qualities to offer the world.”
Stewart began working with the MAISD and the seven school districts and, together, created a training plan to begin the work of “Making it Cool to be Kind” in Montcalm County.
A plan spanning two school years was designed that includes the creation of planning teams, which consist of high school students, school staff, parents, community members, and business organizations.
“The goal is to identify and design the culture in which we expect to live,” Dora said. “(We want to) identify the standards of how we wish to be treated and to create a culture by design.”
Improving the climate
For Stewart, the task of working with seven school districts is the largest she has ever taken on.
“I’ve never done this before where every school in a county does a two-year program together,” she said. “This came about because people want unity throughout the entire county, using resources and working together to benefit all of the different communities.”
Stewart said she will guide the small groups of students from each district, but in the end the goal is to have students take control of the program and lead by their own example, from assemblies to organizing other school activities.
“Every student here has brought something to the table,” she said. “They all care about helping other people. Teenagers will listen to each other so much more than they will to anybody that is older than they are. They have so much enthusiasm and many great ideas.”
Assistant principals Todd Oatley and MaryBeth Taylor assisted in picking the group of eight students at Greenville High School and said they feel confident a lasting, positive change can be made at the school.
“It all centers around improving the climate in the schools,” Oatley said. “Our students all want to have this goal of treating people better but they are afraid to say anything or do anything because they don’t know how many people have their back.”
It is for those very type of reasons that Oatley said a student-to-student mentality is critical for the program to work.
“I think this is going to create some critical mass for supporting good behaviors, drowning out some of the poor behaviors that kids get away with,” he said. “The stars have aligned with this and almost every group and club here at the school seems to be on board.”
Senior Emily Smith, 18, said after meeting with Stewart that leading by student example may be the most important factor in attempting to create a new atmosphere of kindness.
“There’s an issue of having an outside person come in, having a big impact, getting people going, and we have change, but only for two months,” Smith said. “But we don’t see that person for another two or three years and the motivation and drive to create a change fades away. By having a student-led group in each school that is driven by the same purpose, I think it will lead to greater sustainability of the program.”
Sophomore Mikayla Davis, 15, said there’s no reason a student should not feel safe and confident when attending school.
“When you come to school you want to feel comfortable,” she said. “You’re here to get an education and the last thing you want to deal with is wondering if people are judging you or if you are fitting in or not. We want the entire student population to be comfortable.”
The one relating factor between all eight students selected in Greenville is that they have witnessed or experienced a form of bullying in some capacity.
“I myself am a kid who has been bullied a lot,” Loomis said. “I didn’t like it, so when I see other people being bullied, I know from personal experience that they don’t like it. That’s just something that needs to be changed, bullying is just not acceptable.”
Alec Fowler, 15, the only freshman representative of the group, said he believes bullying at the high school level is “under the surface” and goes unnoticed by most students.
“I’ve witnessed it firsthand, whether the bully was my friend or I was being bullied,” Fowler said. “It just needs to change and I feel confident we can do that with the people we have.”
For junior Jenny Robinson, 17, witnessing bullying amongst her peers was enough of a problem for her to decide to join the “Making it Cool to be Kind” group when asked.
“Some kids come from a bad home life and bullying other kids is all they know,” she said. “Other times kids don’t feel like anybody understands them, so they treat others poorly. We want to show kids that you don’t have to be that way, that you can be open and no one is going to judge you.”
With “Making it Cool to be Kind” being an extensive program throughout the county, Dora said funding has been provided by area donors, but more funds are being sought.
“There is a business and community component incorporated in this program,” Dora said. “We can make an impact across all ages and communities in Montcalm County.”
Community sponsors include Spectrum Health United Hospital, Isabella Bank, Central Montcalm Community Foundation, Carson City-Crystal Area Education Foundation, and community members Linda Stafford, Julie Stafford and Mike and Jan McCrackin.
“The support of these sponsors to help offset the cost of this initiative is critical to the program’s success,” Dora said.
For more information or to contribute to the “Making it Cool to be Kind” program, contact Dora at (616)-225-6136 or firstname.lastname@example.org.