Featured Fellow: Transforming a School with Jim O’Rourke, Principal, Hillsboro-Deering High School

By Will Foley, CEI Intern

Hope, Potential, and the Turnaround

When Principal O’Rourke took charge of Hillsboro-Deering High School in New Hampshire, he saw the inherent potential of the community he was joining. The school cycled through five principals over the course of five years. A talented staff was demotivated, students weren’t proud, and test scores were low. But Jim saw something else. He saw excellent teaching, an active student body, and a community ready to support the school. Jim’s first priority was total community engagement. “We all wanted the same thing: to do better,” he says. Hillsboro-Deering has done just that.

When you talk to Jim, one of the first things you sense is a passionate energy. He leads by example. Shoulder-to-shoulder with his staff and students, they worked together to implement a plan to do better. His first priority was to build a consensus plan with his staff and to empower students to build their own handbook. He made sure that, at every level, there was buy-in from all the stakeholders at his school. Jim took charge of Hillsboro-Deering by giving control to the people that he led.

Building Connections and Empowering Change

Jim understands the value of connection: “We need to know every student’s story, not just their names.” When he suspected that some students were being overlooked, he took action, so that he and his staff saw and heard every student.

The Red Blanket project (adapted from a Red Blanket trauma approach used in hospitals) was an effort to ensure that every student had a staff member they felt they could talk to in times of trouble. Jim displayed lists of students and had teachers identify students with whom they had significant relationships. When the staff finished the activity, they realized there were a handful of students who didn’t have a connection to a single adult in the building; some didn’t have anyone outside of the school either. Those students became a high priority for Jim and his team.

Jim found other ways to infuse Heart Centered Learning in his building. Recently, his school implemented an advisory period where the focus is building teacher-student relationships. With a variety of activities, such as Cross the Line and a student choice initiative, the community is working to reach everyone. O’Rourke reports that with more choice, they find that “students are more engaged and excited about learning.” Hillsboro-Deering High School also has a ropes course that offers a team building activity to dually build staff morale and prepare teachers to use activities to increase a sense of community with their peers and students.

Continuing to Lead

While he has seen some improvement in teacher-student relationships and a sense of belonging, Jim knows his work is not over and is already rising to the next challenge. “We need to do more. Our kids are hurting,” he says. In recent years, the school has seen the number of students going to the counselors for risk assessments triple. He believes that students today need to build resiliency, especially in his community where they deal with profound trauma and poverty.

Jim’s passion to bring change to education doesn’t stop in New Hampshire. He has a podcast, celebratEd, where he talks to leaders in the world of education about how to give all students the tools they need to compete in today’s world. “Amazing things happen every day, and too many times, we do not capitalize on the opportunities to tell our story or celebrate the many successes we experience…”

This is why Jim is an active and engaged fellow with the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC). From webinars and presentations, Jim has learned new information that he is sharing with his staff to implement strategies for improving mental health in his school. Through a teacher-led taskforce, Hillsboro-Deering High School is improving student mental health and wellbeing. Jim describes the work he’s been doing with the C-TLC as “transformative, reassuring, and hopeful.”

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