Fourteen-year veteran Principal Martha Strother inspires her students to “do whatever it takes” to overcome the odds and graduate. The kids sport wristbands with the motto, reminding them to be victorious over difficulties.
Superintendent of Schools Rick Berry’s vision for Windfern High School of Choice (WHS) grew from his son’s lackluster performance in a typical, massive high school. In 1995, WHS opened in a re-purposed administration center as a small campus school for juniors and seniors with limited class sizes and individualized education. The school is designed for, “bright, able children, whose native intelligence isn’t showing up in standard settings,” Strother says.
WHS’ original goal was to aid under-credited students. A decade later, its innovative style attracts accelerated-credit students, who are anxious to reach their next educational step. Over-achievers now make up one-third of the fluctuating student body, numbering 250 to 400. Classes are small by design with 12-15 students, allowing students to make meaningful connections their educators. The day is simplified with three 105-minute classes, running for nine weeks instead of a semester. This schedule accommodates students’ additional responsibilities or situations, which might intrude on regular school hours. Students, aged 17-21, also enjoy an open campus lunch. The demographics are spread, but a quarter of the students are economically disadvantaged.
Key to Success
More than 90% of students are considered at risk, so how has the school thrived? According to Strother, the key is everyone’s commitment. The campus is one of choice, meaning students choose to attend. They must apply and be screened. They pledge adherence to a behavior and attendance contract. Meeting with the students, Strother explains, “I will love on you hard and be hard on you, so you can rise to high expectations.” In fact, her 43 teachers and staff aim to add value to every student. “We want to get every kid across that stage at graduation, regardless of personal circumstances,” she stresses. This creates an atmosphere of positive potential, driven by responsibility and respect with graduation and life beyond as the goal.
Strother believes attitude is everything. Discipline and manners matter, like saying, “Good morning,” to her as they enter the building. “It’s not what happens in life, but how they respond.” Everyone is on board with the task of teaching a life curriculum, or resiliency. Teachers are tolerant and always look for the good in their students. This involves a number of conversations with staff and students about the importance of kindness.
So, how does it work, placing reluctant learners next to accelerated pupils? Even Strother would’ve never guessed it would function, but she says, “It creates a rich learning environment from which everyone benefits. Windfern is misunderstood. Every district needs a school like WHS and leadership from Amarillo to El Paso comes to see it in action.” It is one of five model schools in Texas for dropout prevention.
Keeping it Small for Success
The smallness factor is the main draw for students. Tough love coupled with high expectations also breeds a sense of family. “It is a legacy—the school family—and our signature stamp,” Strother says. “Kids feel they belong.”
WHS hopes to expand that family and their reach. Presently, students must have 10-16 credits as juniors or seniors to apply, but the possibility to teach basic classes to over-age freshmen and sophomores is on the table—whatever it takes.
Each December and June, WHS graduates 85 to 125 seniors. There is never a dry eye in the crowd, as they hear speeches from students about their journeys and plans. Strother delights in meeting a Windfern grad later and is proud of her students’ victories. “I have the best job in the school district,” she says. “Every student has a story, and I watch them turn their lives around through the power of education. They can determine their destiny.” CFM
Fast Facts on Windfern HS
- School opened in 1995
- Principal Martha Strother
- Fluctuating student body of 250-400
- Motto: Lighting the way, one student at a time
- Goal to Graduation: Whatever it takes
- December & May Graduations of 85-125 kids