Moving Evidence to Action

Non-profit Cortico working closely with MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication deploys Real Talk to elevate student voices for meaningful change at Freeport High School in Maine.  

photo courtesy of derek davis, portland press herald

Freeport High School, located in a small coastal town in Maine, has an enrollment of 639 students and a stated commitment to “integrity, community, perseverance and creativity.” According to its website, Freeport High “celebrates individuality and empowers students to achieve their highest aspirations in pursuit of excellence.” In fulfilling its mission, it faces the same headwinds that are challenging many secondary schools nationwide: navigating a fragmented social landscape where political, media, and technological forces are pulling us apart instead of bringing us together. 

At Freeport High, incidents of tension and microaggression, bullying and vandalism, and racism and discrimination escalated in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. Not surprisingly, social media exacerbated these problems. YikYak, a social media message board where users post anonymous comments for anyone within a 5-mile range, amplified gossip and bullying. TikTok users then started a bathroom challenge that went viral nationally. The challenge encouraged kids to post videos of vandalized school property, especially bathrooms. When Freeport High students participated in the challenge, the administration closed all but one bathroom. The decision – and the student body’s frustrated response – reflected how badly communication and trust between students and administrators had deteriorated.  

The school administration made various changes following Floyd’s murder, but students – especially those of color – still felt their needs were not being met and their voices not being heard. But some incidents continued. School administrators realized a deep need, both for the good of the community and for better learning outcomes, to re-engage youth voices and communicate constructively with the student body.

Students were still interested in talking and being heard, but the school lacked a trusted method and space for meaningful conversations.

In September 2021, while Freeport High administrators were in the midst of tackling this problem, a consultant working with the administration – Jennifer Chace, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Source School and the author of Maine Education 2050 – met Alex Kelly Berman. Kelly Berman was VP of Partnerships and Programs at the nonprofit Cortico, which had developed a unique community conversation platform in collaboration with the MIT Center for Constructive Communication (CCC). The platform allows partnering organizations and communities to bring people together in facilitated, recorded small-group conversations around their experiences – then make sense of the conversation they collect through a combination of analytical tools and human listening. The process enables partners to surface typically underheard voices into community dialogue and decision making.

To Chace, the Cortico/CCC conversation seemed to offer the kind of trusted space for meaningful conversations that Freeport High administrators and students needed, with a caveat. “The platform was designed to welcome honest, authentic sharing of experiences. But we realized that, given the breakdown in trust, the students needed to lead the process and control how the conversation data would be shared. My role was to help them lead it, not lead it for them.”

Kelly Berman echoed Chace’s assessment. “It was clear to me that there was exceptional alignment with Jennifer around introducing a student-led initiative and giving students agency in project planning and decision around data. Jennifer brought deep experience in project-based learning and was a natural learning partner in our work together,” said Kelly Berman.

Chace engaged with Jennifer Gulko, Freeport High’s principal, to deploy the conversation program. Gulko reflected that “most of us have memories and images in our heads of high school experiences either as the recipient or the perpetrator of hostile and hurtful behavior, which as adults we regret.”

At Freeport, the program became a way to hear student voices that have historically been marginalized, underrepresented, and dismissed.

To deploy Real Talk, the Cortico/CCC team, Chace, and a group of student leaders first co-created a Conversation Guide with parameters and guidelines for student-led conversations. The guide was constructed for these 12 student leaders to facilitate 11 conversations with 4-6 students per conversation. Each conversation lasted about 60-90 minutes. The Guide evolved over several iterations with the student leaders. Its purpose was to engender trust and minimize skepticism among the students and the administration. The guide was not a survey but rather it created an opportunity for students to speak openly about their experiences, be heard, and – as Chace noted – “say whatever they felt like saying as opposed to what they are supposed to say.”

Chace, along with Cortico/CCC staff and researchers, ensured both that the students would co-create the Conversation Guide and that the school administration would not, at the outset, receive the recorded conversations. Once the conversations were completed, the students would decide what to share with the administration and how they would share it. The students’ comments would also remain anonymous.

When the conversations were completed, the Cortico/CCC team uploaded the raw audio to the platform, where software transcribed the recordings and extracted keywords that would help students begin to make sense of the conversation data. When students met for a follow-up sense-making session, they identified 221 highlights (audio excerpts) that meaningfully connected to common experiences, feelings and themes across all 11 conversations.

The Cortico/CCC team then coded and tagged the conversations thematically by topic to identify patterns of concern. The primary theme that emerged from the analysis was that relationships within the school felt upset and unheard and needed attention. Sub themes included communication, discrimination, and consistent and fair application of rules and policies. A CCC researcher, Maggie Hughes, created a visualization based on this data that brought the analysis to life for the students in a powerful way.

What happened next was astonishing, and could be a model for secondary schools throughout the country.

Chace created a slideshow presentation for the students to present to school administrators that included the conversation themes and highlights that emerged from them, snippets of audio and text from the conversations, and data analysis and visualization. “It’s fair to say,” said Chace, “that the administrators didn’t expect the rigor and depth of the analysis they were seeing.” 

“When the students saw the administrators being impressed by the depth of the work, and their ability to explain the visualizations, their confidence level increased, and along with it their comfort level with sharing their concerns more fully,” Chace continued.

The administrators started to ask questions that the students were able to answer and explain. As the administrators saw the students owning their own process – and as the students observed that their concerns were being taken seriously and weren’t just relegated to “hearsay or the isolated complaints of a few disgruntled students” – a level of reciprocal trust and respect evolved. “There’s no going back now,” one of the administration officials remarked. “We are listening, we are grateful, and we will take action.”

“This moment shifted the dynamic of the relationship between the adults and students,” said Chace, “building confidence in competence by adults toward students and confidence in openness and care by students toward adults.”

The school administration, with student leadership, invested in an accountable and sustainable next steps. A student policy leaders group continued conversations around three thematic areas of importance that were surfacing: communications (micro aggression and discrimination), rules and policies, and mental health. Freeport High principal Gulko has budgeted 40 minutes a week for groups to meet on these topics during the school day, along with longer workshops with Chace (and occasionally Cortico and CCC). 

Student leaders have been using the conversations to design solutions to problems in these areas, and make sure their solutions resonate with and meet the needs of the students experiencing the problems. The leaders are now presenting their asks to the appropriate leadership/decision makers in the district. Along the way “the students have learned a lot about who makes decisions about what and how to approach those groups,” noted Chace, “all with the support of a principal who is making those connections with them.”

Despite this progress, Freeport High School’s challenges in fulfilling its mission have not disappeared. Incidents of microaggressions, for example, do continue. But now there is a process for addressing them, with solutions – grounded in conversations led by the microaggressions team – that will be presented within the school system in the coming months.

As Chace summarized, the process to date “has led to improved, trusting relationships between student leaders and the principal in particular, more open lines of communication, and trusted forms for listening to and sharing student concerns.”

The focus of next year’s work for Freeport High’s student leaders is to continue to advance their involvement in the decision making that impacts the student body directly. After several years of divisiveness and mistrust, student leaders and the administration have, in just four semesters, created a roadmap for a hopeful, productive, and meaningful secondary school future, overcoming power hierarchies, developing empathy, and creating a shared understanding of what it means to have a real conversation.