Eighth-graders at Whittemore Park Middle School immediately began cheering for their classmate to win an arm-wrestling challenge with Michael Corso, an educator helping introduce a new program at the school.
The objective was for one of the competitors to win by pinning his opponent 20 times in 30 seconds. During the contest, Corso and the student each pinned the other 20 times, which Corso explained only could have happened through cooperation.
The outcome surprised and upset some students, who expected the challenge to end with one competitor earning a clear victory.
Corso, chief academic officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, used the contest to show how a shift in thinking can move a situation from a win-lose scenario to win-win and to introduce core values of self-worth, engagement and purpose. The students will be learning through a new initiative set to roll out in all eight Conway schools over the next three years.
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The initiative came from a group of community members and educators set on elevating the attendance area’s struggling schools, which were examples of excellence in the 1980s, when Conway High School was named a National Blue Ribbon School. The group wants to unify and strengthen Conway’s eight schools, aiming to raise the graduation rate, to ensure students are college and career ready, and to restore the support and pride in the schools that was once felt from the community.
Whittemore Park and Conway High School were chosen as the first schools to implement the Quaglia program, which emphasizes core values that improve student aspirations and achievement, as well as leadership and responsibility. The initiative has the backing of the Horry County school district, which put $150,000 toward the effort, and the Conway City Council, which pledged $1,000.
“I do believe with every fiber of my being you’ll see wonderful things happening,” Russ Quaglia, the institute’s president and founder, told district officials and community members when he visited last spring. “If you build good people, the grades will come with it.”
Quaglia and Corso were part of a three-member team that worked in the schools the last two days. Corso and colleague Julie Hellerstein were at Whittemore Park Wednesday to work with a core team of teachers who began training during the summer and to introduce the program to the students and faculty.
“Everybody recognizes we’ve got to do something different,” Principal Judy Beard said. ”There are so many social and emotional needs that have to be met, and that relationship piece is critical with students before you can teach them. Their strategies aren’t necessarily new but maybe are things we’ve forgotten.”
Corso had core team members on their feet in the morning, going through simple exercises that made important points about how systems work in life, how people see themselves and how negative patterns can be interrupted. Some of the teachers already were incorporating new themes in their classrooms, such as in English language arts, where students were writing letters about their own beliefs.
Corso also spoke with each grade separately, explaining that, like the arm-wrestling match, cooperation is needed to make win-win scenarios possible. He and Hellerstein solicited written answers from students about how to help students feel they belong, their advice for teachers on making learning more fun and decisions they think they should have more of a say. They also were invited to indicate if they want to serve on a team that will work on some of their ideas.
This week’s visit was the first of many, and the team will be back in a month, taking student surveys and learning more about the schools’ specific needs.
“We want to know what school looks like from your point of view,” Corso told the students. “We’re interested in helping each of you find what you want to do the rest of your life and in getting the tools you need to achieve it.”