Creating a Student-Centered School: Lessons from Willowbrook High School

 

This Case Study will examine the benefits of a student-centered approach, and how one high school has implemented this strategy. 

Empowering learners through a student-centered approach 

During our School Study Tours last October, the EALA team and attendees observed Willowbrook High School (WBHS) classrooms. As student guides led us through the halls, one theme became evident throughout this school: student-centered learning. 

The visit showcased numerous student-centered approaches in action, from student-led tours to a professional development session hosted by The Brook, a student-run catering service, and concluding with a student panel Q&A.

Cultivating a student-centered environment 

WBHS’ student-centric approach is no accident. 

In his 17-year tenure as principal at WBHS, Dan Krause has spent much time reflecting on ways to engage the school community outside of the classroom. 

This desire goes back to his experience as a student, where he says that opportunities to be involved outside the classroom fueled his enthusiasm for school. Krause shares, “I always loved, as a student, the excitement of the beyond the classroom stuff at school […] and now flipping it to being a leader of the building, how do you engage students more?”

As a leader, Krause wants to cultivate the same feelings of excitement and belonging for WBHS students. “The more you bring students to the table, the more they want to be involved,” explains Krause. 

Here are a few key ways Krause has implemented this student-centered model:

 

1. Engage students from the start

Student-centered schools value student input and integrate their perspectives in the decision-making process. Rather than inviting students to sit in on meetings and informing them of decisions, student-centered schools actively involve students in shaping those decisions. 

With this in mind, Krause invites students to speak at staff meetings and contribute to critical thinking and problem-solving. 

“Student voice means students are at the table from the very beginning, giving you the feedback about how it’s going to be, what it’s going to look like for them, and how they are going to make it work,” explains Krause. 

2. Stay focused on the students 

Students are at the center of this approach — a fact that Krause often reminds his staff of. He underscores that adapting to meet students’ needs isn’t an option; it’s a necessity. 

“This isn’t our experience; this is theirs,” says Krause. “We change what we do every year because we have new kids.”

Krause will often bring students into staff meetings to keep staff engaged and inspired to share their stories. In doing so, he cultivates an environment where staff are not just informed by but deeply connected to, the evolving needs and experiences of their students. 

3. Foster connection and belonging

Popping into hallways and classrooms and saying hello to those he passes in the hallways are some low-lift but high-impact ways Krause models support and respect throughout his school. These small gestures go a long way toward improving morale in the building. 

Krause also fosters connections by bringing WBHS students into 8th-grade transition nights as a valuable resource for parents as their children move into high school and Zooming them into conferences he attends. Creating these impactful relationships and strengthening ties within their community adds a layer of belonging to students’ lives.

4. Say “yes” or “not yet”

Student-centered schools aim to encourage creativity and autonomy. To that end, Krause encourages students and staff to share innovative ideas openly. 

Once presented with these ideas, he recommends working together as a team to explore how they can be reasonably integrated into the school’s community.

Krause shares, “I think we’ve worked hard always to find a way to say “yes” and keep that lens. It has taken a while. […] I consistently say the same thing to staff and parents. 25% of students are going to change every year, so every year, we need to change to meet the needs of the new students and new staff that are coming on board. The more we say yes, the more creative kids got and the more excitement kids had for school”. WBHS empowers students and teachers to take charge of their school experience by fostering a culture that welcomes new ideas and input.

5. Be clear with your expectations

Creating a student-centered school requires clear communication and alignment of expectations with staff members. Krause emphasizes the necessity for direct, explicit conversations to ensure everyone shares the same vision for the school. 

“If there is a desire for a particular environment, it must be modeled and expressed clearly,” says Krause. “Staff will not read your mind.”

A good rule of thumb is treating staff how you want students to be treated. “When you model the results you want to see, it creates a trickle-down effect that spills over to students,” says Krause. 

Transforming school culture 

WBHS’s student-centered initiatives have had a positive effect on student behavior. Incidents of defiance and disrespect, gang activity, and bullying have dropped across the board over the last 17 years. 

Krause attributes this partly to the student ambassador program, which fosters connections with new students and breaks down barriers. “As students feel valued and heard, they typically tend to take down their walls,” says Krause.

WBHS’s student-centered approach’s success shines through in events like the annual Curricular Showcase. Like an Open House, the Showcase invites parents and incoming freshmen to experience learning in action through a student’s perspective. 

The event is unique because it is led by WBHS’ students, who prepare interactive displays and demonstrations of their coursework, offering a glimpse into the student’s academic journey and experiences. “Some of the most impactful school events are when the ones are student-led,” says Krause. 

WBHS also hosts Lunch and Learns for staff with different cultural student organizations. Through these events, WBHS not only emphasizes the student voice but celebrates it. The result is a welcoming and inclusive environment that enriches the educational experience for students and staff alike. 

Reflections

"What I would tell other educators"

“Bring kids to the table. You can talk all day about student voice and student agency, but if you’re not doing it with students, you’re not doing it.” – Dan Krause 

 

Having students present at the start of the staff meetings has propelled this work forward. Krause recalls one particular meeting where teachers were discussing different instructional strategies. Students were invited to give their thoughts on how they felt these strategies worked for them. “Ask students for their opinions. You will get something out of it,” he says.

"What we are still figuring out"

WBHS is committed to supporting all students at the level they need to be successful. One out of three students at WBHS is enrolled in an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 504 Plan, or English as a Second Language (ESL) program. As WBHS continues its student-centered approach in all aspects, universally designed programming will be more apparent throughout its classrooms.

About The Author

 

Dr. Dan Krause, with a career spanning since 1995, has held various roles in education, starting as a high school mathematics teacher and progressing to leadership positions. Currently serving as the Principal of Willowbrook High School in DuPage High School District 88 since 2007, he is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Aurora University. Actively involved in the Illinois Principals Association since 2002, Dr. Krause has served in leadership roles, including President in the 2019-2020 school year. Recognized for his contributions, he has received awards such as DuPage Region High School Principal of the Year (2013) and the Illinois Principals Association Herman Graves Award (2021). Dr. Krause has presented at  local, regional, state and national levels, covering topics like Smaller Learning Communities, Positive Behavioral Interventions, and school improvement initiatives. Additionally, he mentors new Principals and consults on school improvement support for districts like Chicago Public Schools and Detroit Public Schools.