A Roadmap to
Building Connectedness
Steilacoom High School’s new Sentinel Center is a place of belonging
Mary Snyder
Social Emotional Learning Specialist, Steilacoom HSD
Mike Miller
Principal, Steilacoom High School, Steilacoom HSD
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Ensuring School Safety, Engaging the Community, Closing the Gap
This fall, the Steilacoom High School Team proudly launched its new Sentinel Center for Running Start and Pierce County Skills Center students. Designed as a place for students to connect, study, relax, and find community support, the Sentinel Center was, and continues to be, a project of inclusion for all of Steilacoom’s student body. Mary Snyder, Steilacoom’s Social Emotional Learning Specialist, obtained grant funds and worked alongside staff to make the Sentinel Center a reality. It was a long process to look for ways to better connect their students that share multiple campuses. How did the dream begin, and what did Steilacoom High School encounter on its journey toward building connectedness? Read on for an outline of the project from Problem of Practice to Plan to Design, and finally Launch.
1. Problem & Research
Steilacoom High School experienced consecutive years of heartache. Over two years, we lost two students by suicide. The grief and trauma our students and staff experienced is impossible to express in words. These tragedies led our district and building leadership to look into what we could do, as a system, to lend more supports to our students.
Because Steilacoom believes in, and has a focus on, Social Emotional Learning, we dove deeper into the cause of our students’ stress and we were able to find some close connections. Both of the students we lost were participating in our Running Start Program. SHS is less than a half mile from Pierce College, and about 20% of our students take at least one class “up the hill.” Other data also pointed to students in Running Start feeling less connected and showing additional stress responses. This group of our students became a major focus on our work.
2. Ideas & Plan
Once we moved from looking into and researching the problem, we narrowed our focus on the idea of creating more connectedness with our students that are participating on the two different school campuses. We had full support from the district and our superintendent, Dr. Kathi Weight,, and were tasked with coming up with ways to make our Running Start Students feel welcome and supported at SHS even when they are not in class.
Because Steilacoom believes in, and has a focus on, Social Emotional Learning, we dove deeper into the cause of our students’ stress and we were able to find some close connections.
Mary Snyder, our district’s Social Emotional Learning Specialist, played a key role in leading this effort and her ideas and expertise in this area was critical to our success in addressing the problem. She applied for and received the I-Grant 990, which is a grant for tiered suicide prevention strategies. Coincidently near the same time, the Steilly Admin team had recently returned from presenting on Standards Based Grading in Spokane at the AWSP Summer Conference.
When conversations with Mary and the Steilly A-Team started; there were a lot of ideas and the conversation explored several approaches. When we were in Spokane, we finalized our presentation at Gonzaga University, in their Hemmingson Center. During our time in Hemmingson, we noticed several GU students hovering around, interacting with a GIGANTIC interactive screen, and connecting with each other. After further conversations about the setting in the center, the support from the i-grant, and the idea of creating a place for our Running Start students, the Sentinel Center concept began to take shape. The vision for the center was to create a place for our students that is conducive to comfort, camaraderie, and offers amenities that are on the Pierce College campus up the hill.
3. Design & Development
Once we presented our ideas to the district, they were all in. We were so excited to start the process of creating the “Sentinel Center.” One of the ideas we kept coming back to in our conversations was the atmosphere in The Hemmingson Center at Gonzaga. It is a calm environment that offers not just students, but anyone that is visiting the space, food options, seating options, and access to services that the university provides.
One of my jobs during college was a barista with Starbucks. Coincidentally, one of our assistant principals, Jessica Soete, was also a barista with Starbucks. In our training with the coffee company, they refer to their stores as “ “the third place.” As they explained it, there are two main places in our life: work and home. The “third place” is a space for people to go, relax, and have the opportunity to study, or read, or have a conversation, or just spend some time with their thoughts.
After a deeper discussion about this, we came to the final ideas for our Sentinel Center. We wanted it to be our Running Start Students’ Third Place. We wanted to create an environment where they could spend time when they are not in classes at SHS or at Pierce College. With that idea in mind, we worked to create that space for them here at SHS. We filled it with an interactive screen (98”) that allows our students to share projects, write down their thoughts, or just have fun and explore the options it provides. It has comfortable seating, and soft lighting that doubles as phone/electronic chargers. It has a single serve Keurig machine, and a space for communication for both Pierce College and Steilacoom HS, to help our students stay up to date on all communications.
The final obstacle to resolve was the location of the space. These conversations about the Sentinel Center started because we wanted to set aside a devoted space on our campus for our Running Start Students so they will feel more connected to each other. We did not want to forget about the actions that got us to this point. We did not want to lose any more of our students, and our goal was to do something to help them feel welcome and accepted. This led us to the conclusion that the Sentinel Center should be near our Counseling Center – where caring adults could help build connections and provide support when needed.
The agreed-upon location for the Sentinel Center is in our existing counseling office space. There was a room located just outside three of our counselors’ offices and was the perfect location for these students. Not only will the Sentinel Center offer space (approximately 200 sq. feet), but because of the location, students will be in close proximity to their counselors and will have an easier time accessing them during their time here. Shae Emery, our district’s Maintenance & Facilities Manager, joined in the discussions and helped come up with the idea of how to define the Sentinel Center space.
4. Construction & Launch
The ideas were in place and the start of the Sentinel Center construction began on July 1, 2021. The center features two walls of glass that can close or open and they define the Sentinel Center. This idea came about so our counselors and other adults can observe the space and make themselves available for support if needed. After three months of construction, it was complete and ready to host our Running Start Students.
The opening ceremony for the Sentinel Center was celebrated during the week of Nov. 15, 2021. We had a breakfast reception and ribbon cutting ceremony. Pierce College Administration and Counselors attended the ceremony, as did the Executive directors and School Board members from the district. It was a strong show of partnership between our two schools and was a tremendous show of support for our Running Start student population.
Upon reflection of this process and how we got to the idea of the Sentinel Center space, we realized it was the product of a lot of hard work from more than a few people. It sprouted out of a necessity to find ways to create more opportunities for our Running Start Students to feel a stronger connection to Steilacoom High School while attending classes on two different campuses. As the Sentinel Center is observed after opening, we have come to realize more opportunities for the space and the population it serves.
Initially, we thought this space would provide a sense of connectedness for our Running Start students. After further observation and more discussions, we realized that our original thought was actually excluding our other students who wanted to use the space. The Sentinel Center is a space for ALL Steilly students! We continue to market it directly to our Running Start students to ensure they feel connected, but it is now a space where all our students have an opportunity to use as it was envisioned. It is a space that brings students together, allows easier access to our counseling services, and is overall a space that our students respect and appreciate. It has started the process of creating more connections with all of our students at Steilacoom High School.
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Washington Principal | Volume 2– 2021-22