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.

MIT Center for Constructive Communication | 04.26.2023
Freeport High School, Maine

Freeport High School, located in a small coastal city in Maine, has an enrollment of 639 students. The socioeconomic and demographic makeup of the student body is diverse, with 16 percent of Freeport High’s students receiving free or reduced-cost lunch. The school offers an array of AP, honors, and special ed courses, and as the school’s website notes, it is a school committed to “integrity, community, perseverance and creativity.” Freeport High School “celebrates individuality and empowers students to achieve their highest aspirations in pursuit of excellence.” Yet, like many secondary schools, it has struggled over the past several years to achieve its own mission. Tension and conflict, bullying and vandalism, and racism and discrimination have become pervasive and honest and authentic communications between students and among students and administrators have broken down.

“Tension and conflict, bullying and vandalism, and racism and discrimination have become pervasive and honest and authentic communications between students and among students and administrators have broken down. ”

The Structure of Toxic Conversations on Twitter.rnMartin Saveski, Brandon Roy, Deb Roy.

The challenges at Freeport High were caused by layers of miscommunication ultimately spiraling out of control. It began in May 2020 when George Floyd’s murder inflamed existing feelings of mistrust, anger, aggression and frustration. Strong student feelings about racism, discrimination, LGBTQ+ rights, social injustice issues, as well as the school’s rules and policies led to student “micro-aggressive” behaviors. Social media exacerbated an already existing conflict-laden school landscape. YikYak, a social media message board where kids anonymously posted comments for anyone within a 5-mile range, generated more bullying and toxic gossip. TikTok then started a bathroom challenge that went viral nationally. The TikTok Challenge encouraged kids to post videos of vandalized school property, particularly in school bathrooms. The TikTok videos show kids stealing urinals, smashing floor tiles, and stealing soap dispensers. When Freeport High students participated in the TikTok challenge, the administration closed all but one bathroom. A substantial intervention became an imperative.

The school administration tried various ways to solve the conflict, ultimately bringing in the superintendent to interview students. The interviews focused primarily on racism and discrimination. The administration implemented ostensible solutions in response to the students’ comments. Despite these good-faith efforts, the students did not believe their concerns were being addressed. They felt that their voices still weren’t being heard. They “were not happy,” and their micro-aggressive behaviors continued. It became clear that the solution needed to involve a paradigm shift toward a culture in which meaningful and trust-building conversations could take place. 

In September 2021, while school administrators were in the midst of tackling this problem, Jennifer Chace, the Executive Director of the Education Action Forum of Maine and the author of Maine Education 2050, met Alex Kelly Berman, VP of Cortico’s Partnerships and Program. “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 then engaged Jennifer Gulko, Freeport High School’s principal, to deploy Real Talk to address the school’s communications problems. 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.” She added, “High schools have almost always been a hotbed for tension, bullying, and graffiti.” Today though, cultural divisiveness, the impact of social media and the awareness of inequities, racism and other types of discrimination have accelerated and exacerbated the problem. For way too long student voices have been marginalized, underrepresented, and dismissed. To deploy Real Talk, the Cortico/CCC team, Chace, and the Freeport High students first co-created a Conversation Guide with parameters and guidelines for student-led conversations. The guide was constructed for 12 student facilitators, 11 conversations, and with 4-6 students per conversation. Each conversation lasted about 60-90 minutes. The Guide evolved over several iterations with the students. 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, as Chace noted, a “brave space,” in which students could talk with peers, be heard, become accepting, and “say whatever they felt like saying as opposed to what they are supposed to say.”

Chace, along with Cortico/CCC staff and researchers, ensured that not only would the students co-create the Conversation Guide, but she also made sure that the guide development process would itself be a trust-building activity. She assured the students 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. Chace explained to the students that software would transcribe the recorded conversations, extract keywords, and identify themes for the students to see and review. The students could then decide which comments they wanted to share with school administrators.

When the conversations and recording process were completed, CCC researchers uploaded the raw audio. The data were analyzed, tagged, and coded thematically by topics and patterns of concern. The Freeport students reviewed the data and created highlights based on “common experiences and their own thoughts about what was important to them.” The thematic takeaways for the students were “trusting relationships, communication, change in school culture, and working together.”  

What happened next was astonishing. Surely a model for all secondary schools throughout the country. With the assistance of Cortico/CCC and Chace, the students created a slideshow presentation. The deck included an overview of the Real Talk process, the conversation themes and highlights that emerged from them, snippets of text from the conversations, and data analysis and visualization. At the beginning of the presentation, the administration listened carefully, but their level of engagement was minimal. But Chace noted that it was the data analysis, the data visualization, and the evidence base that completely changed the engagement level of the students and the administration, creating an “aha” data visualization moment. The administration started to ask questions, the students were able to answer and explain. As the administration saw the students owning their own process, 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.”

The school administration, with student leadership, is now invested in an accountable and sustainable next steps phase. The principal, student leadership, and the CCC/Cortico collaboration is moving evidence to action in 2023. There’s a leadership council tasked with creating three new conversation groups: communications (micro aggression and discrimination), rules and policies, and mental health. Gulko has budgeted 30 minutes a week for these groups to meet during the school day with an option to meet for an added after-school session. 

At Freeport High School, the student body will now be included in decisions that impact them directly. They will not just voice their concerns but will have influence in creating change. There is mutual respect between students and among students, teachers, and administration. After several years of divisiveness mistrust, micro-aggressive behavior, and a lack of respect, the students along with 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 a shared understanding of what it means to have a real conversation.