‘There is a place in West Grand for everybody’: New program seeks to improve school district’s culture, climate

Superintendent Darrin Peppard (left) will be inducted in to the Josten's Renaissance Hall of Fame at the national conference in July. Last year, the district took six students and eight faculty to the national conference (pictured here).
Courtesy photo

Officials from West Grand are implementing a new school culture initiative this year and, with the buy-in of a small cadre of students, they hope to spread passion for their efforts.

“We want people to be kinder and respect the school and ‘staffulty,’” West Grand High School senior Gina Manguso said. “We are making a point to talk to people so they feel included, so they feel like they don’t have to be outsiders in our school. There is a place in West Grand for everybody.”

West Grand School District Superintendent Darrin Peppard began efforts last school year to institute the Renaissance Program, a program that looks to improve the culture and climate within schools through a series of student-led initiatives, created by the Jostens Company, famous for producing school yearbooks and class rings. A South Carolina high school principal and his Jostens representative created the program in the 1980s, which has since spread into a nationwide movement.

“(The Renaissance Program) is really all about positive culture and climate,” Peppard explained. “And really driving culture and climate with student voice, choice and leadership.”

Peppard is extensively familiar with the program and has been involved with Jostens Renaissance for close to 15 years. He is one of just five Renaissance Coaches for Jostens across the entire country, work for which he receives no compensation.

This school year marked the program’s pilot effort at West Grand.

To kick off West Grand’s Renaissance Program, six high school students were selected by a group of “staffulty,” a term West Grand uses to refer to both the district teaching faculty and all other staff members. Those six students, seniors Manguso and Jayden Edson, juniors Angel Castillo and Emma DeSanti, and sophomores Omar Dominguez and Iliana Castillo, got the honor of attending the Jostens Renaissance Program National Conference in Orlando over the last summer.

The six students were selected by the district through a teacher nomination process that looked at individual character and enthusiasm for the goals of the program. The district selected two students, a male and female, from grades 10th through 12th, making an effort to select a group that would provide “diverse representation of the entire student body.”

During their summer excursion to the Renaissance National Conference, the West Grand students attended a series of seminars and events covering school culture and the ways in which students can help lead change within their schools. Officials from West Grand said the conference drew over 4,000 people and included a trip to Walt Disney World.

“The conference transforms who you are,” junior Angel Castillo said of his experience at the Renaissance National Conference this summer. “It is surprising how much you change.”

Manguso highlighted the spirit that the conference evoked in herself and her peers.

“When we bring it back to our school, we were all on the same page,” she explained. “We know what to do and how to do it. We want to spread that.”

The students are looking to improve the district’s culture through a series of relatively small initiatives that they hope together will have big impacts. Along with their efforts to expand inclusion and compassion among their fellow students, the students are also looking to spruce up the look of their schools with mural painting projects.

The group’s first project this year was the painting of bathrooms at the high school.

While painting bathrooms might seem like a small step, the students felt the dynamic created by painting the bathrooms was indicative of broader trends in the district.

“I feel like it is such a powerful message,” Manguso said. “It is just a couple of cans of paint, but it so much more than that because it is change. Sometimes when changes happen it forces other people to change. Something in my life has changed and it is going to push me to change. Change is hard but it is good.”

Looking forward, the Renaissance Program students from West Grand hope their efforts this year become building blocks for future students who participate in the program.

“Our goal is long-term,” junior Emma DeSanti said. “It is not going to happen right away. We are trying to bring that Renaissance feel but it is a gradual thing. There are things we can control now, like painting the bathrooms, but giving people a different outlook. That is something more long-term.”

Officials from West Grand said they plan to continue participating in the Jostens Renaissance Program for the foreseeable future. Each year the district expects to expand the amount of Renaissance Program students by brining a new group to future conferences to “increase the number of voices that are at the table.”

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