Photo (Left to right) Lucy Ankenbrandt, student and Sloen Zievenrink, student at Vestavia Hills City Schools.

A Mobile App Created to Connect Students, by Students


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Sep 21, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version 

At Vestavia Hills High School, students wanted to promote school spirit and unity through a mobile app they envisioned, designed to improve communication among peers. Facilitated by high school leaders, the VHHS Student Life app was launched in September 2017 and has been downloaded more than 1,300 times so far. For their initiative of encouraging youth leadership, Vestavia Hills City Schools are among the winners of the 2018 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Community Engagement. 

Vestavia Hills is a suburb of the city of Birmingham, Alabama, with a population of 34,000 inhabitants. Established in 1970, the school district of Vestavia Hills serves the region with five elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school, enrolling 7,000 students, of which 2,000 attend grades ninth to 12th. In 2004, as Vestavia Hills High School grew and became more diverse, the Youth Leadership Vestavia Hills (YLVH) program was created with the tagline ‘Be the Difference,’ in order to train high school students to become leaders in their community and help them connect with one another. 

“Every spring, freshmen are invited to participate in a training retreat as a requirement for entrance into the program. Once they participate in the training, they become a member. Every year, more than 200 freshmen students are trained through the program, which has created a critical mass of students who are working intentionally to change the climate of the school,” says Kym Prewitt, leadership teacher & sponsor at Vestavia Hills City Schools and a VHHS graduate herself. 

Once they are in the program, students are eligible for other YLVH activities, including leadership and service opportunities and leadership classes. According to Prewitt, at any given time, approximately 700 high school students have been through the training and are a part of the YLVH program. 

“YLVH is an important vehicle in making a big school feel small, a place where every single student feels a sense of belonging, acceptance, and importance,” says the leadership teacher. 

According to Prewitt, students in the Youth Leadership initiative learn that leadership comes from integrity, and that there are non-obvious ways to lead, such as providing a good example as a friend or neighbor. 

“We all have the potential to be leaders, so choose to be a good one. Lead everyday wherever you are — in the classroom, on the field, in the community. How you interact and treat others is the foundation for all the rest,” Prewitt affirms. 

The Possible Project

In the fall of 2016, students from YLVH were looking for ways to promote school spirit and unity among the student body at Vestavia Hills High School. That’s when they came up with an idea: To develop a mobile app exclusively for student use to improve communication among peers. They called that initiative ‘The Possible Project.’ 

After two months of preparation that included research, discussions, brainstorming, and writing, students approached the district with the idea detailed in a formal presentation. 

The project was approved, and the app was developed by Blackboard through collaboration with the students during the summer of 2017. 

Launched in September of 2017, the app has been a success. Available for free both for Android and IOS, it has been downloaded more than 1,300 times, representing more than half of the high school’s student population. 

“This project created a great sense of pride among the students, and a better understanding of the concepts they had studied as they actually experienced leadership in action,” says Prewitt. 

According to the leadership teacher, after the app was launched, the students have continued to play a leading role in the management of the app and its ongoing development. 

The Student Life App 

Conceptualized by students of Vestavia Hills High School, developed by Blackboard, and launched in September of 2017, the app has 1,362 downloads. 

More than 60 information sources or feeds were added to the app, including website feeds, school calendars, teacher Twitter accounts and sports score streams, ensuring constant updates throughout the day. Students can also use the app to access their grades. 

The Chalkable page is by far the most popular with 22,300 views. The second most popular is Calendar with 7,399 views, and the third is the News Feed with 6,374 views. 

“This app has made general communication between the school and the students much easier. So much information is now at our fingertips in a medium that we can easily use. It also highlights student achievements and celebrates the amazing things that the kids in this school are capable of. I check this app like I check Instagram!” — Sloen Zieverink, student. 

Small Groups, Big Changes

Kym Prewitt points out that the challenges schools face today are universal. “Bullying, depression, anxiety, isolation, violence, and coping by using drugs and alcohol, are all too common. There is great pressure to sext, to be perfect, to be someone you are not. That is the common culture in which our teens operate.” 

The leadership teacher believes that nothing can change the culture of an educational institution like a critical mass of students having the mindset of making the school a better place by reaching out to help or connect with one peer at a time. “When enough students believe they can ‘Be the Difference’ and they act on that belief intentionally, as true change agents, that is when the culture shifts.” 

Prewitt mentions the book “Communities: The Structure of Belonging” by Peter Block, to explain the ideas that are at the foundation of the community work being done at VHCS. 

“One premise of the book is that communities are transformed through small groups, which is how we structure our training for students. We teach students to consider the perspective of others as much as their own to learn how to better connect with people who may be different in some way from themselves,” she explains. Adding that in larger schools, particularly, being intentional about connecting with others is essential to creating a culture in which everyone feels welcomed and valued and has a sense of belonging. 

“We instill in students a sense of ownership of their community. We started this long before ‘student voice’ was the buzzword. We have always strived for students to engage in their communities with their positive ideas, their respectful actions towards others and acts of service,” Prewitt concludes. 

Student Engagement Initiatives

The Youth Leadership Vestavia Hills program offers many ways for students to engage with their community. 

“In the Leadership class that is available to juniors and seniors in the YLVH program, we focus on four pillars: communication, confidence, empathy, and initiative. All of our activities are designed to improve these skills and characteristics of each student,” says Prewitt. 

Learn next some of the program’s initiatives, which continue to expand every year. 

Bridges Panels: In this initiative, students receive training on bullying and then visit middle schools to share their own stories and experiences in this area with younger students. 

Help the Hills Student Team: A select group of junior and senior students who represent the school and the community in the fight against drug and alcohol use and abuse. 

New Student Committee: A student-led committee responsible for making new high school students feel welcome. The committee pairs each new student with two Young Leadership students who have something in common. It also promotes many new student group activities during the year, including a welcome pizza party. 

Leadership Classes Level I and II: A year-long, project-driven course on leadership training, communication skills and community service, open to juniors and seniors who have completed Youth Leadership training. 

RISE: A community-wide fundraising event for select local charities, planned and executed by YLVH. It’s the highest-attended event of the year, with the participation of 75% of the student body. 

Service Opportunities: YLVH promotes community service through a point system, in which members are required to earn points by participating in events, committees, and through community service. 

Photos by: AFP – Kyle Grillot