Growing up about 20 miles south of St. Louis, Civic Studies and Debate teacher Ben Niewoehner spent his high school years deeply involved in extracurriculars and academics. Motivated and supported by his family, he pushed himself to excel as a way to make both himself and his parents proud.
Niewoehner said he knows his family supports him. Even when he has not made the greatest choices, he said their help and guidance remained a consistent part of his life.
For Niewoehner, transitioning from high school to college meant not only moving to the University of Missouri—Columbia, but also reevaluating his ability to succeed in an academic setting. At least in the beginning, Niewoehner struggled through some of his general education classes. Because of his theater minor, however, he found a supportive group of friends through his theater group, many of whom were upperclassmen. As a freshman taking advanced theater coursework, Niewoehner said he and his classmates created study groups with designated times to study for tests, to pull all-nighters and to write papers, all of which reinforced their understanding of complex material.
“I never really had to study for anything in high school,” Niewoehner said, “and then I quickly learned if I don’t study and apply myself in a different way in college, I wasn’t going to be successful.”
While Niewoehner had to learn those lessons on his own at college, here RBHS offers support in the form of the Success Center. After serving as a guidance counselor at RBHS for 10 years, Melissa Coil began working in the Success Center as the Counselor for Student Support. In this position, she monitors students’ grades, their progress in classes and helps with any of their academic needs. Regardless of a student’s race, gender or grade, Coil and the other teachers working in the room are ready to help him or her however they can. She said the male to female student ratio in the Success Center is even, and although the majority of students are freshmen or sophomores, upperclassmen sometimes choose to work in the Success Center as a way to hold themselves accountable.
A student’s home environment, Coil said, can have a significant impact on the student’s ability to thrive academically. She dedicates each class period to help her students master homework and balance school work with other commitments. If she can accomplish this, then her students can focus on other aspects of their lives once they leave school each day.
Coil said she has never spoken with parents who would say they do not want their child to be successful, even if they do need extra help from them around the house. She and the rest of the staff in the Success Center try to “fill in the gaps” at school and act as a consistent support system for students who may otherwise lack dependability and stability in their lives.
“If you can’t go home and do homework because you’ve got to go work to help make an income for your household, or you have to go home and watch your little brother and sister because your parents work the third shift and you’re the only daycare provider, and that, you know, all of those things mean that school gets pushed to the side,” Coil said. “… for a lot of my kids, it just makes it hard to really do anything at home because of all the other extras.”
A 2012 paper from the Stand for Children Leadership Center, a nonprofit leadership development and training organization, showed how students with strong support systems are more able to excel academically without the added pressure of familial and monetary responsibilities than those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or who lack a positive school environment. With his passion for science and math, junior James Glaser had few reservations about taking on an Advanced Placement and dual credit course load, as well as an internship at a lab in the UMC physics department. Since his freshman year, Glaser has selected courses with the potential to open up new opportunities in the future to ensure his success. Students who take a challenging course in one subject, Glaser noticed, are more likely to continue to take difficult classes in that subject and across the board than those who do not.
In Coil’s experience, success is often a subjective term. For high achieving students, she said an A- could not feel successful, while for other people that grade could be a point of pride. Meeting a student where he or she is and working upward from their personal starting point can be difficult, Coil said, especially with students who have not had positive experiences in school in the past. She believes students must first be able to come to a place of trust and vulnerability where they can openly and honestly ask for help before they can move forward to achieve their goals.
“Even for the kids I work [with] in here, in my world, success is totally different. For some it may mean just passing all of our classes, and for some it may mean really taking the step from scraping by and passing all of our classes to moving to the C and B range that they really can be at on a regular basis,” Coil said. “I just think it looks so different, and I think the difference probably is for those high achievers they have found earlier on a group of people and supports that they trust, and for kids that I work with that tends to be something they just have not had a positive experience in school in the past.”
Often times the students she works with are less prone to follow the traditional university path, opting instead to pursue technical degrees or work in a more hands-on environment rather than continue learning in a classroom setting, Coil said. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), total undergraduate enrollment increased by 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, but it decreased by seven percent between 2010 and 2016. It is projected to increase again between 2016 and 2027. While high schools typically encourage students to pursue post-secondary educations, Coil said students who did not excel academically may choose to attend a technical school or go straight into the workforce instead.
“If high school’s been a super struggle for you and you’ve just barely scraped by,” Coil said, “why are you going to want to up that antee and go to college?”
Because she works with students who may not feel confident about their ability to manage schoolwork, Coil experiences resistance on a near-daily basis. Over the years though, she has learned to let the water roll off her back like a duck and stay as consistent as possible in her students’ lives, no matter what their reactions are.
“I understand that 99 percent of the time the pushback or the anger or the whatever comes out of somebody’s mouth isn’t directed at me, it’s directed at being afraid to not be successful,” Coil said. “And so I just roll with it. My kids know that even when they don’t say nice things or make good decisions that I don’t make any judgements because the most important thing to me is that we learn from our mistakes, and that we learn together and that we keep trying to work on it.”
Niewoehner echoed Coil’s sentiment, agreeing that the more negative interactions a student has with authority figures, the more likely that student is to perform negatively or drop out all together. He sees a vicious cycle of a student not performing well, which causes the student to fail over and over again, which in turn leads to negative interactions with authority figures. This cycle repeats with a student failing more classes, lacking any incentive to engage in material, and eventually resulting in a dropout.
On the flip-side, Niewoehner said, the more positive interactions students have with authority figures, the more incentive they have to be at school and do well, which in turn will push them into college or another post-high school path where they can achieve their goals.
“You have ambitions to do something with your life as opposed to negative interactions and being made to feel less than, and then not really knowing where your place in society is,” Niewoehner said. “[This leads to a mentality of,] ‘If you can’t find a place here in high school, what are you supposed to do?’”
The Aspen Institute recently published a national commission report of recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development called “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation of Hope.” The claim of this report boiled down to one simple statement: “Children learn best when we treat them as human beings, with social and emotional as well as academic needs.”
Throughout his secondary education, Glaser said all of his teacher interactions have been positive, which help to keep him engaged with course material and interested in a teacher’s lesson. When hearing other people talk about teachers they had conflict with, Glaser was glad he never had to be in that position.
For students who need more challenging classes, he believes a divide can form between the grader and the one who is graded if course material is unengaging. Glaser hopes to see more cooperation among students and teachers because students require academic support to succeed.
While success has a different form for each person, Coil believes it is never too late to ask for help and find a way to succeed. She understands high school and college are not “one-size-fits-all” educations. Coil encourages students to find somebody who is consistent and willing to help. She said if a student does not receive the help he or she needs, then he or she should ask repeatedly, demanding to be supported if necessary. Even if the student asking is a second semester senior, Coil said, it is never too late to ask for help and to be open and honest about his or her needs.
“Whether you have [support systems] outside [of school] or not, there are people in your everyday life that you see in the building that are ready and able to support you in achieving the goals that you have,” Niewoehner said. “You just have to find them, and that might look like a conversation with a teacher that you trust. Find the teacher that you trust, and ask them, ‘How can you help me?’… Any teacher that’s good at their job is ready and willing to help a kid.”