The Westside Community Schools are investing some time and thought — and some funds — in hope, an elusive concept that research indicates can help students succeed.
“Building hope” is the district's theme for the current school year. Shane Lopez, a senior scientist for Gallup who is billed as the world's leading researcher on the psychology of hope, spoke to teachers during their annual start-of-school convocation.
Teachers have been working the idea of hope into classroom activities, and a Nigerian artist focused on it during his weeklong visit to an elementary school.
During a professional development session next week, teachers and staff will spend an hour to take a walk, grab a coffee and talk through a hope-building exercise intended to help them visualize what the future should look like for themselves, their students and the school district.
The district has sent home fliers encouraging families to try it at home and has invited the community to follow the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.
So what's up with hope?
Westside is the latest of several metro-area school districts to take part in the Gallup Student Poll, a free survey of students in fifth through 12th grades that includes questions intended to measure hope, engagement and well-being. The 13 Westside schools were among nearly 1,800 that participated last year, according to Gallup.
Ralston, Elkhorn, Omaha and Millard have used the poll to varying degrees.
Avenue Scholars, which teaches disadvantaged students what they need to know to get into college, succeed there and begin a career, uses similar measures of hope both when selecting and working with students.
The level of financial and staff commitment varies by district. Westside, for example, paid $2,500 to bring in Gallup experts for two sessions to help administrators break down the data and $2,500 to bring in Lopez. Ralston, which has used the survey districtwide since 2009-10, reviews the data in-house.
Millard this fall will survey students, staff and a selection of parents. The tab for the paid surveys of parents and staff, and follow-up sessions on reviewing the data, will run $134,500.
An estimated one-third of the schools that participated in last year's polls were involved in follow-up development or training focused on the next steps in creating hope, building engagement and boosting well-being, either in person or through an online course, according to Gallup Education.
Westside's results indicated that 57 percent of students surveyed were hopeful, above the national average. Sixty-one percent were engaged, right at the national average.
Blane McCann, Westside's superintendent, said the district wants to increase those percentages.
Factors such as hope and engagement, he said, figure into the district's efforts to focus on the whole child, not just academics. McCann said he wants to make sure graduates aren't just academically ready but also emotionally resilient and prepared to overcome obstacles. Research by Lopez and others indicates that the two go together.
“It's pretty clear hopeful students have higher academic achievement,” McCann said. “They're more engaged in school. We know if you're engaged in school, you're more likely to be successful.”
McCann said he thinks the analytical help from Gallup was a good use of district funds. Principals wanted to know how best to put the survey data to use in schools. He wanted to incorporate it into school improvement plans.
“We like to be able to dig down deeper into that data, just like we do with academic data,” he said, noting that Westside, like many businesses, works with Gallup on hiring.
Lopez's talk was intended to share the message of the power hope with teachers. His new book, “Making Hope Happen: Create the Future You Want for Yourself and Others,” incorporates 20 years' research on hope.
According to that research, hope is a key predictor of whether students will be successful in school, whether a college freshman will return for a second semester, even whether a salesman will outsell a less-hopeful colleague.
McCann said the fee was reasonable. As he walked through buildings during the first couple of weeks of school, he saw teachers putting hope to work.
Julie Schmitz and Becca Kratky, sixth-grade teachers at Oakdale Elementary, thought about what they could do to get kids to dream about the future and give them a purpose for going to school every day.
They asked students to write and illustrate paragraphs about what they saw themselves doing in the future — their families, their careers.
It was daydreaming or visualizing with a purpose, Schmitz said.
They also asked students to think about what it would take, from doing homework to planning their time, to make it happen.
“What is it they're doing,” Schmitz said, to try to achieve their dream every day: ' “I'm learning math because this is my hope for the future.' ”
The district's coming event, called “Nexting While Walking,” is based on a similar exercise Lopez uses to build hope in his young son on their walks to school. They talk about what he's looking forward to, about his plans and dreams for the future and how he and those around him can make them happen.
Lopez, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and now a business professor at the University of Kansas, described the exercise in his book and in a recent blog for Psychology Today.
Cristin Rold, Westside's director of learning innovation and professional development, said the event will give teachers a chance to practice what they're being asked to teach, a step that's often missing from professional development.
Rosie Zweiback, vice president of the Westside school board, said the board uniformly supports the initiative, particularly given the research.
“Hope is a powerful way to frame what we're doing with kids,” she said.
In the past, she said, the district has brought in experts from across the country to speak to teachers or lead professional training. “It's nice to use local talent,” she said.
Board President David Woodke said Lopez's talk, which he attended, was eye-opening. Lopez distinguished between wishes and hopes, noting that hopes need to be backed up.
Woodke said he supports the effort and hasn't heard any concerns about it from the community.
Nor is Westside alone in tapping the survey results.
Millard, which was among the first districts in the nation to use Gallup's parent engagement survey, uses the results to plan for the future.
“Because engagement leads to such rich conversations about student achievement and community connections, we find the engagement surveys absolutely invaluable,” said Rebecca Kleeman, a district spokeswoman.
Ralston shares the data with building leaders, guidance counselors and others, as well as with district leaders and school board members. It's used in conjunction with other assessment results to provide a clearer picture of the district's overall learning environment.
Most schools have seen continued growth in all three measures — of hope, engagement and well-being — since the poll was first administered, officials said.
A number of Omaha Public Schools buildings have participated in the poll in recent years, said Todd Andrews, a district spokesman.
The district also has done post-survey follow-up. Nearly 200 OPS counselors visited Gallup's campus in the fall of 2010 to talk about hope and how it can be fostered in kids. A couple of projects followed, including an art project complete with a gallery show at Washington Elementary and a student essay-writing effort at South High School.
Andrews said schools' participation has decreased in recent years, however. The poll is administered toward the start of the school year, when schools are giving academic pre-screening.