Jack Hobbs had never taken part in a sport or club at Louisville Middle School. That changed last winter when social studies teacher Greg McSwain asked him to become team manager for the boys eighth-grade basketball team.

Jack demurred. The bright and funny eighth-grader, who is on the autism spectrum, liked the structure and consistency of his after-school routine. He especially didn’t want any obligations on Friday afternoons.

“The prospect of him doing something outside of school was terrifying,” said Jack’s mother, Tracy Hobbs.

But McSwain, with support from Jack’s parents and other school staff, gently persisted until Jack agreed to take the role—with Fridays off. He helped run the clock at practice, hand out uniforms and inflate basketballs. He rode the team bus to away games, wore a shirt and tie on game days and ate pizza with the players.

The effort to get Jack involved on his own terms illustrates Louisville Middle’s unusual commitment to ensuring that its 640 students feel a sense of belonging and connection to school.

It started about six years ago amidst broader conversations in the Boulder Valley district about high school graduation rates and the factors that cause kids to drop out. School leaders, knowing much could be done in advance of high school, launched efforts to track and encourage student participation in extracurricular activities and determine which students could benefit from stronger relationships with staff members.

The goal was simple: Help kids feel good about school—safe, accepted and engaged—and they’d be more successful over the long haul.

The school’s efforts come at a time when schools in Colorado and across the country are increasingly trying to meet students’ social-emotional needs with initiatives such as universal mental health screenings, advisory periods and mentoring programs.

Louisville Middle’s experience represents one school’s evolving path to promoting student well-being.

“This is really exciting to hear what they’re doing,” said Olga Acosta Price, the Director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at George Washington University. “There’s a connection back to the literature…around school engagement and the developmental needs of kids.”

Such initiatives take time, energy and money, but school staff—and a growing body of research—say they pay dividends. Students display fewer behavior problems, attend school more regularly and do better academically.

While the kids at Louisville Middle may not be aware of these benefits when they sign up for Anime Club or banter with a favorite teacher, they do know one thing.

“It’s really hard to be invisible in this school,” said Principal Ginny Vidulich.

The big spreadsheet

Brian Munoz, assistant principal at Louisville Middle, is in charge of a key tool that helps school staff figure out who’s involved and who’s not.

It’s a big spreadsheet that Vidulich first created in 2010. It lists every student down the left hand column and the school’s 45 sports and clubs along the top. A quick glance and it’s easy to see which kids aren’t joiners. Not all of them represent red flags—some students are busy with private sports teams outside school— but it gives Munoz and his colleagues a sense of who may feel isolated or face logistical barriers to participating.

“It’s just a basic Excel spreadsheet, but it tells us so much, and more importantly makes us ask a lot of questions,” Vidulich said.

That doesn’t mean students are asked point blank why they aren’t involved. But the data may prompt a little detective work. For example, casually asking a mother if her daughter plans to run track like her older son did or divining whether students can’t participate because they lack a ride home or the right kind of equipment.

The spreadsheet also has sparked an oft-repeated invitation to students to pitch their own ideas for new clubs and activities.

Such nudges have led to a fivefold increase in non-sport offerings. Vidulich said there were just six clubs when she started at Louisville Middle as assistant principal in 2007-08 and now there are 30. The offerings range from jazz band and knitting club to ultimate frisbee and the newly created dodgeball club.

By the end of this year, Munoz and Vidulich expect the school’s attachment rate to be between 93 percent and 95 percent—meaning the vast majority of students will have participated in at least one school-related activity this year.

The thing that they made

A peek inside Philippe Guegan’s math classroom on a Thursday after school will give you a pretty good idea how kids have responded to the school’s push for extracurricular involvement.

A student practices a trick at a recent meeting of Louisville Middle's Kendama Club.
A student practices a trick at a recent meeting of Louisville Middle’s Kendama Club.

The desks are pushed against a wall, a remix of electronic and reggae music plays in the background and a dozen boys zig and zag as they practice kendama, a Japanese ball-and-cup game.

Eighth-grader Jordan Mizia and a friend got the club started a couple months ago. They wrote a short proposal, recruited Guegan to be their sponsor and won approval within a week.

“It’s such a great thing,” said Mizia, who has his own YouTube channel featuring kendama tricks.

Guegan, who had no previous kendama experience, said the club allows him to get to know his students in a different way than he does in class.

He watched from the side of the room as Mizia enthusiastically organized a series of challenges for the group.

“It’s their thing that they made,” he said. “They’re invested in it. They look forward to it every week.”

Even with the school’s wide array of extracurricular activities and the constant encouragement to get involved, some kids choose not to participate. But there are other checks and balances in place to ensure students have a sense of connection to school.

One of them is called “Developing Our Ties,” an exercise the school has conducted most years since 2009-10. It’s meant to determine which kids are well-known to staff and which kids aren’t.

It goes like this: Teachers jot down three things they know about each student in their seventh-period class. They turn in those lists to administrators for an exercise that takes place when students are off.

The lists are posted along with each student’s photo. Then the whole staff peruses them, adding more information where they can. At the end of the exercise, administrators apply a red sticker to any list that either contains no comments or only generic comments like “sweet kid.”

About 67 students, or 10%, fell into this category when staff did this in February. These are students—some new to the school and some who’ve slid quietly by—that teachers or other staff members will work to build stronger relationships with.

By design, the overtures won’t be obvious or embarrassing.

“Maybe it’s a conversation,” said McSwain, the basketball coach. “Maybe it’s asking how their weekend was. You got to kind of be a chameleon. The teacher has to adapt to the kid.”

Ingredients for success

Most secondary schools offer extracurricular activities and most teachers aim to build good relationships with their students. So what makes Louisville Middle different than many counterparts?

It’s a two-part answer. Teachers, parents and administrators say efforts to promote student attachment are an integral part of the school’s culture. Some say it’s contagious.

There’s also the school’s use of data.

“It’s very systematic. It’s not just based on intuition, a hunch,” said Price.

By developing tools such as the spreadsheet and processes such as the “Developing Our Ties” exercise, the efforts become routinized and therefore easier to sustain over time, she said.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps.

For example, last year there wasn’t enough professional development time for the Developing Our Ties exercise. Vidulich believes that lapse might be why a larger-than-usual number of eighth-graders—28— were identified with red stickers this year.

And since the school pays teachers to run extra-curricular activities—after a period during which they do so gratis—there’s some pocketbook pressure too. Fundraising dollars, district intramural money and sometimes optional donations from club members cover staff costs and the cost of gear or supplies for kids who can’t afford it.

Despite the challenges, the school’s trend lines are promising.

Over the last six years, there’s been a 45 percent reduction in major incidents of disruptive behavior and a 14 percent reduction in minor conflicts between students.

In addition, 95 percent of respondents in the most recent parent survey said they knew of one or more staff members at the school their child could trust for help with a problem.

And although the school is fairly well off—only about 15 percent of students come from low-income families—school leaders believe their efforts would work elsewhere.

Munoz came from a school where more than 80 percent of students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, a proxy for poverty. Having an activity-tracking spreadsheet there would have been incredible, he said.

“It’s totally doable. I think Title 1 schools need to jump on this,” he said, referring to schools that receive special federal funding because they serve many poor students.

Price said new programs to foster student attachment can seem like a burden—one more thing on a busy teacher’s plate.

Schools, she said, might instead frame them as a strategy for achieving the school’s educational mission: “If you spent time on this, it actually does get us to our objective. Not only will kids be happier and more engaged we’re going to see them performing at a higher level.”

Small victories

Jack recently finished the season as basketball team manager. It was daunting at times but he gained confidence and maturity.

If his mind drifted during a stretch of game-time tedium, McSwain patiently brought him back into the fold, recalled Tracy Hobbs. Parents of other players gave Jack high fives.

“He still talks about it,” said Hobbs. “What they did for my kid is overwhelming.”

McSwain said the experience also benefited his players, who developed more empathy as they got to know Jack.

“Kids respect him and include him…In the beginning of the year I’m not sure that was the case,” he said.

With basketball over, there’s a new goal on the horizon—getting Jack to run track or become the track team manager. It may take some convincing, but Tracy Hobbs thinks he’ll do it if the right people ask.