The Source School
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Freeport High School

Since 2021, Cortico has worked in partnership with The Source School to create better listening channels between the student body and administration in Maine high schools.

In the case of Freeport High School, located in a small coastal town in Maine, incidents of tension, bullying and vandalism, and racism and discrimination escalated in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020.

Initial efforts taken by the administration to address these issues were viewed as lackluster by many students, especially students of color. Administrators realized a deep need, both for the good of the community and for better learning outcomes, to re-engage youth voices and communicate constructively with the student body.

Students were interested in speaking and being heard, but the school lacked a trusted space and method for meaningful conversations.

Tensions still reigned in September 2021 when Jennifer Chace, Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Source School and a consultant working with the administration, was introduced to Cortico.

To Chace, Cortico’s ability to surface student voices and capture nuanced sentiment at scale could create the level of trust and transparency the school sought. This engagement would allow students to have full agency over the project, something that Chase viewed as vital to its success.

“The platform was designed to welcome honest, authentic sharing of experiences. But we realized that, given the breakdown in trust, the students needed to lead the process and control how the conversation data would be shared. My role was to help them lead it, not lead it for them.”

Jennifer Chace, Co-Founder & Executive Director of The Source School

The Cortico team, Chace, and a group of student leaders first co-created a Conversation Guide that encouraged students to speak openly about their experiences in school. Next, 12 student leaders facilitated 11 conversations with 4-6 students per conversation. Each recorded conversation lasted about 60-90 minutes.

With the help of Cortico’s AI-powered listening and analytic tools, students could see patterns across conversations, identify themes, and generate usable insights. Students themselves presented the findings, including conversation themes and highlights, snippets of audio and text from the conversations, and data analysis and visualization.

It was a win: administrators witnessed the rigor and depth of analysis and appreciated the students owning their own process and the students knew that their concerns were being taken seriously, building a level of reciprocal trust and respect.

“There’s no going back now. We are listening, we are grateful, and we will take action.”

School admin

Student leaders have been using the conversations to design solutions to the existing problems, and are making sure their solutions resonate with and meet the needs of the students experiencing the problems. While issues have not disappeared overnight, now there is a trusted process to address them.

Mars Hill

Cortico continued to partner with The Source School, and extended its efforts to elevate student voices in Maine by adding a high school in Mars Hill. Students were sensing a lack of engagement from teachers and expressed feelings of frustration over their perceived lack of choice and voice.

To better understand students’ needs, Mars Hill school administration worked with Cortico and Jennifer Chace to provide the opportunity for students to participate in recorded small-group dialogue sessions. The conversations were facilitated by nine seniors who led their peers from every grade level in sharing their experiences.

The process not only worked to build trust and provide actionable insights for administration, it also enabled students to develop skills in technology, data analysis, collaboration, and deep listening. At the end of the school year, students were invited to present their findings and make recommendations to the community during a school board meeting. As a result, two student liaisons have since been added to the board. The project lays the foundation for a productive communication channel between students and administration, with plans in place to expand the project next school year.

“We created a culture of listening. The hope is that we established a school culture that has a willingness to always adapt and keep improving. It’ll never be perfect but having this process sets us up to have a strong school community.”

Mars Hill student

Students visit the MIT Media Lab

On May 15, 2023 students from both Maine high schools met for the first time at MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication. The purpose of the visit was to connect students and their experiences of leading recorded small-group conversations in their schools, starting to build a network of networks. It also provided the students a “behind-the-scenes” look at the research and technology that powered the experience.

It was also an opportunity to thank students and school administration for their work in shaping a new program model at an urgent time for students, teachers, administrators, and families.

“Even though our schools are quite different, we still have some similar issues. That being said, the same could be true of many other schools. Maybe if these projects work out well, other schools will follow our examples and try to improve their schools as well.”

Freeport student

Using our tools and our experience, Cortico is eager to expand this pilot and there are now several schools in Maine who are planning their own projects for fall 2023. Of note: students from Freeport and Mars Hill will be advisors to this effort. The partnership has deepened our understanding of the potential opportunity, and impact, in continuing to work with high school students.

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