Washougal High students honored for creating ‘welcoming school community’

Local school is first on West Coast to win nationwide Jostens Culture Challenge

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It was early in the morning on Nov. 23 — the last day of school before Thanksgiving break — and Washougal High School students stood outside their school, next to a large cart filled with cups of hot chocolate, waiting patiently for school buses to arrive.

When the buses started to pull into the high school’s parking lot, the students greeted the bus drivers with smiles, words of appreciation and hot cups of cocoa.

Now, those same students are the ones receiving appreciation for their kindness.

Jostens, a Minneapolis-based school memorabilia manufacturer, named Washougal High School as one of three winners of its “Culture Challenge,” a national competition that aims to empower students to work with staff members to create a welcoming and inviting school community.

“When I told (the students) we had won, they were so excited. They started clapping and cheering,” said Kyla Ritchey, Washougal High’s Associated Student Body (ASB) advisor and leadership in project management teacher. “We’re the first school on the West Coast to win, so it’s super exciting. Because I knew that there weren’t any schools on the West Coast that had won, I went into it, like, ‘We’re probably not going to win, but this is a good opportunity for them to take ownership of a project.’ They ran with it and worked so hard on it.”

More than 90 schools entered the competition, which was coordinated through Jostens’ Renaissance Education platform, a framework for building a culture where educators and school staff love their jobs and students thrive in school, Ritchey said.

“One of the things they highlighted about us was that the students worked together, not just within the student groups, but with staff to pull this together, to recognize the bus drivers and do something kind,” Ritchey said. “I think that was something that (Jostens) wanted to recognize, that they thought was special. It wasn’t just the students; it was that the students then reached out to other groups of people within the high school to work together to recognize another group of people.”

Ritchey learned about the competition at a Jostens Renaissance Education conference in July and told her students about it during the start of the 2023-24 school year.

“I said, ‘There’s one that’s coming up. I think it’s something that we can totally do. Are you guys up to the challenge?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” she said. “They looked at the challenge and asked me questions about it, and we brainstormed (ideas), because it was a very, very generic challenge: ‘We want you to recognize your transportation department.’ And we were like, ‘OK, so what can we do?’”

Ritchey said they decided to recognize the Washougal High bus drivers, who, she said, “go through a lot, having to drive through terrible conditions in the hills of Washougal, especially this time of year.”

The students “planned all aspects of the event,” including gathering supplies, decorating cups with personalized expressions of gratitude, and preparing the beverages, according to Ritchey.

“They got to have some creative freedom with it,” she said. “I got to see them work together and work with staff members. It was just fun to see them all together laughing and having fun together and encouraging each other. The bus drivers were happy and excited. (The students) felt the happiness of, ‘We made someone’s day by just doing something small.’ It ended up being a good experience for them.”

Washougal High student leaders play an active part in creating a welcoming school climate, according to Ritchey. They meet monthly with Washougal High School Principal Mark Castle via the school’s Student Voice Council, serve as representatives to the Washougal School Board, and organize numerous community events, such as Stuff the Bus, among other activities.

“(Before the start of the school year), we had a meeting, and we were like, ‘OK, what are some of the things that we’re going to focus on?’ They talked about, ‘We want to focus on improving our culture and climate in our building, and we’re going to focus on the piece of belonging. We want students to feel like they belong in our school,’” Ritchey said. “They’ve done little things to build the feeling of belonging and improve the climate and culture within the school. Any time they do an activity, they look at it through the lens of, ‘Is this going to improve our climate and culture in the school, or is it going to bring it down?’”

Ritchey said the students’ efforts are beginning to pay off.

“I think that, every year, it gets a little bit better,” she said. “I don’t think that there’s necessarily going to be a drastic change, but I feel like there has been definite improvement. I’ve seen more students wanting to get involved in different activities, or just talking to other groups of students and getting along with each other more. The (leadership) students are very proud of the work that they’re doing, and they definitely feel like they’re doing a great job and being a great team.”