Harrisonburg City Public Schools: A Place Where Learning Has No Limits

By Linda B. Sheriff, Deputy Director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools

What do you do to improve student outcomes when you are in charge of a school district of over 6,000 students, with more than 70 percent of the student body qualifying for free and reduced-priced school meals, with more than 50 different languages spoken, and you serve children in a mid-sized town surrounded by farmland with no major external funding sources knocking at your door? You connect with community organizations, businesses, and the local government and you review your systems to see how you can make things work better. Most importantly, you put your students’ success and well-being first.

I have had the pleasure of two visits to Harrisonburg City Public Schools (HCPS) in Harrisonburg, Virginia and many conversations with staff over the last year and I continue to be in awe of the work they are able to accomplish through community-connected initiatives, systems change, and a desire to better the lives of children. Harrisonburg, Virginia is a shining example of how to adjust infrastructure and to be guided by a mission.

I got an inkling of the work that HCPS was doing just over a year ago, in a meeting where we convened over 20 superintendents to discuss the principles behind our Action Guide, Partner Build Grow and to get feedback on the best ways to discuss the concepts with educators. The superintendents in the room were not new to the view that children who are healthy and nurtured have an easier time focusing on learning in school and had implemented a number of programs and initiatives that support student well-being. But as the discussion ensued and the challenges of administering and sustaining initiatives were discussed, one person consistently provided examples of successes. One by one, the superintendents looked to HCPS and asked, but how? How do you do it? How do you provide the services, get the community behind you, and help the students succeed without external funding? The response involved understanding what was available in the community, making connections, creating and communicating a mission that supported the healthy development of children, and looking at systems and policies to support that mission.

HCPS’ mission is “A place where learning has no limits and together we work for the success of all,” and it infuses their core beliefs and guides their work. Programs and activities are not viewed as separate, one-off initiatives, but part of an integrated system that advances their core beliefs. They do not let a successful program end when a grant ends, but institutionalize its main tenants and adapt the program to not only continue it, but build on it. For example, a current practice of every K-12 classroom in the district holding weekly meetings, or community circles, was initiated from an old grant to implement a bullying prevention program in a single elementary school. In addition, the district partners with the community to supplement activities, such as training on restorative justice, counseling and mental health services, trauma-informed training for parents and school staff, and academic mentorship, among others.

HCPS exemplifies the practices promoted through our Action Guide, Partner Build Grow and we have recently released a case study that outlines some of their work. I encourage you read it to see an example of these practices in action and to see if it sparks ideas you can implement in your school or district. CHHCS plans to continue to document examples of how a focus on the system becomes the driving force behind sustaining activities and programs that benefit children.

The case study, “Infrastructure-Building to Support the Needs of Diverse Student Learners,” can be accessed here.