Inspired by the Students: Teaneck High’s Cultural Transformation
School climate was on the top of Dennis Heck’s list of things to change when he started as principal of Teaneck High School in 2011. From the start, he aimed to develop a welcoming student-focused culture and so has spent the last three years making small changes that have transformed the school into one that makes students and staff feel supported and proud.
And it all started by knocking down a wall.
To mark his push for accessibility and transparency, Heck first removed the wall that cut off his office from the main office and the rest of the administration. Now everyone can see clearly from the hall if the principal is in and are encouraged to stop by anytime. Heck’s mission is to be seen as a source of support for both his students and his staff, who he encourages to be independent and unafraid to bring him new ideas.
Heck started at Teaneck in the 1980s as a football coach, and those roots color his leadership style today. Heck and his administrative team focus heavily on data, studying it like old game tape and using the information to develop new game plans aimed at improving student performance and school culture. They are using state assessment data from middle and high school, PSAT scores, and other available data to identify students who need additional preparation for state exams, to improve the school’s math program, and to develop a process to ensure necessary resources reach the students who need them. Their efforts are paying off. The diverse northern New Jersey school, which serves about 1,300 students, currently boasts a 92 percent graduation rate; and 82 percent of Teaneck graduates enroll in a two-year (32 percent) or a four-year (68 percent) college after graduation.
I visited Teaneck High in September and while walking around with a couple of student ambassadors — a new program for seniors who volunteer their time to serve as school representatives, give tours, read the morning announcements, and other activities — I was struck by how empty the hallways were. No litter, no students. Occasionally, a student would dutifully walk by with their passbook. It seemed unusual to be in a high school and not see students loitering in the halls or hear the echoes of a dean’s catchphrase, “Where are you supposed to be right now?”
As the student ambassadors led us by scores of Teaneck Blue lockers — showing us the new college and career office in the student center, telling us about their favorite counselors in the guidance office, and bragging about the distinguished alumni whose portraits hung in the media center and outside of the gym — I could tell they were appreciative of their time at THS — so much so, these seniors admitted they would be sad to leave, and, if they could, they would spend more time at Teaneck.
This was not something my peers nor I (nor probably most high school students) would have said.
All of this was especially different from my own time in high school — specifically, my time in this high school. Five years ago, when I graduated from Teaneck High the walls were bare, deans often chased students into classrooms, and students were rarely the center of so much positive attention.
But now, standing in the building five years later, I could sense a vibrant, student-centered culture.
On the wall outside of Heck’s office there is a large photo of a ballerina, doing a grand jeté. When I asked about the picture, Heck told me that the ballerina was a current student. After first seeing it, he asked if he could use it as this year’s inspirational image. “I don’t know what it’s called,” Heck said, “but, to me, it looked like excellence.” This photo is part of his effort to acknowledge and inspire students in the many things they do — not just the achievement data the school is accountable for. Numerous photos of current students dancing at prom, playing sports, starring in plays, and participating in other extracurricular activities adorn the halls, reinforcing the fact that this is a school for and about its students. The photos are changed periodically so all students have a chance of seeing themselves up on the walls. Heck says he was inspired by his students’ fascination with Facebook.
Teaneck also recently started pep rallies for students who make honor roll, which not only gives high-achievers a chance to be recognized, but also to cheer on their hard-working peers.
The point of Heck’s new initiatives? Students can look to their peers for true examples of excellence.
It’s exactly the culture he had hoped for.