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HCC Students and Faculty Open Up in Student Voice Circles Workshops Aimed at Supporting a Healthy School Environment

The gym at H.C. Crittenden Middle School stood nearly silent, the quiet broken by the sounds of footsteps moving back and forth across the floor, sneakers squeaking along the way.

Students, faculty and staff stood in two lines facing each other, and were invited to take three steps forward each time a statement read aloud was true for them. With nearly three dozen statements that touched on race, ancestry, family makeup and feelings, participants were in steady motion, stepping out when they felt comfortable recognizing a part of their identity without having to say a word.

“Please step forward if you believe your teachers and principal see you as a respectful person,” facilitator Trent Day Hall read aloud. Participants were also invited to step forward if they or anyone they knew had ever been teased, made fun of or called a bad name.

Some statements drew just a few participants, others attracted many, including the penultimate statement in one session, which touched on a priority at Crittenden: “Please step forward if you ever wished that people would just be more kind at school.”

The activity, called an inclusion line, was part of the Student Voice Circles workshop that all middle schoolers attended in October in groups of 70.

Broken into smaller groups that were seated around a circle, the students and adults took turns sharing parts of their identity as they got to know each other better. They participated in the inclusion line and returned to their circles to reflect on the experience. They concluded the 2 ó-hour workshop by writing down recommendations and commitments for improving the school.

The goal, Mr. Hall explained, was for participants to get to know each other in a fundamental way, to humanize each other, and ultimately, to work together to discover ways of improving the school environment. He encouraged students to stretch themselves, to keep an open mind and to take a risk, noting that growth was possible even in a short amount of time.

The social-emotional learning workshop was aimed at “teaching people about themselves so they can then understand the complexities of another person,” Mr. Hall explained.

“If everyone in the school is honoring every other person, then there’s no reason why people should ever find themselves being bullied or made fun of because we all understand the inherent dignity in everyone,” he said.

Principal Kim Lapple said the Student Voice Circles workshop exceeded expectations for fostering a greater sense of community at HCC.

“It was phenomenal,” she said. “The Voice Circles have far surpassed all that we were hoping for in terms of setting a climate of inclusion and student empowerment. The students, administrators and faculty left feeling invigorated and energized in our work together. It has set us on an incredibly focused path.”

Now that the student body has learned how to share their thoughts through Voice Circles, HCC will continue to use the model.

“We’re going to give students a leadership opportunity to become Voice Circle ambassadors,” Ms. Lapple said. “We will train those students HCC Students and Faculty Open Up in Student Voice Circles and they will be able to identify topics we feel will be helpful to explore with our students.”

Voice Circles will be utilized to promote social interactions within the HCC community and to also learn more about student perspectives about their experiences at H.C. Crittenden. Topics that Ms. Lapple plans to look at through Voice Circles include promoting kindness, and examining when kids feel connected to the school community and when they do not.

“We want to continue this work where students can participate and have their voice heard in the school community in a way that we can hear them, and then figure out the next steps to better our community,” she said.

Several students said the workshop shined a light on the personal, often hidden, experiences of fellow students.

“This has changed me by showing me that I’m not alone when it comes to feeling scared or insecure or alone,” seventh grader Matthew Mackohe said. “It really did open my eyes.”

He learned that he has more in common with some students than he realized, and felt that using Voice Circles at HCC could help bridge the gap between friend groups.

“I think it could help by helping open up people,” he said. “I think it can be good if everyone gives it a chance.”

Another seventh grader, Javier Benerofe, called the workshop productive.

“It opened a lot of people’s eyes to what other people are experiencing, and that in some ways, I’m not alone in this thing and there are other people experiencing the same thing,” he said, adding that he hadn’t known so many students had felt bullied or alone.

The best part was writing the recommendations and commitments, he said, “because I think it’s important for the students to have a say in how their school is run and to be able to really recommend things to their administration to make change for the better.”

Ms. Lapple says she hopes that Voice Circles will help create a school community where students are empowered to be involved and make a difference. And a more engaged 

student body will lead to academic growth.

“In the end, this work will help HCC become more connected and more empowered,” she said. “When students feel their voices matter, they are seven times more likely to be engaged and academically motivated.”

HCC is grateful to the Byram Hills Education Foundation for supporting this important workshop.


  1. Trent Day Hall was the facilitator for the Voice Circles workshops that H.C. Crittenden Middle School students, faculty and staff attended in October.


  2. Students and faculty met in small groups during the Voice Circles workshops that took place at H.C. Crittenden in October. In their circles, they shared parts of the identity and reflected on ways to help improve the school culture.


  3. Toward the end of the Voice Circles workshops, participants returned to their circles to write down recommendations and commitments.


  4. Students wrote down their recommendations and commitments.


With Space to Collaborate or Work Independently, Renovated HCC Library is a Sparkling Jewel


Since the start of the school year, the newly renovated library at H.C. Crittenden Middle School has become an extremely popular spot among students and teachers alike.

Over the summer, the library was transformed into a fresh, modern space that offers the flexibility for students to pursue independent or group study, and to participate in various learning activities that go beyond the simple joy of getting lost in a good book.

The new furniture is creative, comfortable and welcoming as well.

“Our new library is one of the shining jewels of H.C. Crittenden,” Principal Kim Lapple said. “When you walk in, you want to engage, explore and pursue your interests. The library creates an environment and space that invites everyone in the HCC community to be curious and involved in learning.”

By knocking down a wall to enlarge and open the space and removing unneeded bookshelves and outdated books, the revamped library can now accommodate more people, and it has new distinct spaces to meet the diverse needs of students working there simultaneously.

The Cafe area has a mix of high and low tables for small group meetings; the Creative Corner features a makerspace for hands-on activities like building and crafts and an enclosed room for audio and video recording; a reading area has soft chairs with high backs that offer a bit of privacy; the Main Stage features rectangular tables and chairs plus soft, modular couches and a Promethean Board; and the Huddle is where a larger group can gather in a semicircle for presentations or lessons.

In this modern-day library, gone are the heavy wooden tables and clunky chairs that were hard to move. The new tables and contoured chairs are light and on wheels, making it easier for students to collaborate and for the furniture to be rearranged as needed. The soft furniture options often fill up first; the students love them.

The library also got a fresh coat of paint and new carpeting, flooring, LED lighting and blinds.

When students arrive, either with their class, at lunch or after school, they gravitate toward the area that best suits their needs.

“Our HCC library is a place for all students where they can pursue all of their interests - whether they want to collaborate, create and investigate, think or read quietly,” Ms. Lapple said.

“Each area is very welcoming. A welcoming learning space enhances and maximizes each student's ability to learn - both collaboratively or as an individual.”

While one goal of the upgrade was to offer spaces for collaborative and individual work, another was to have enough space for more than one class to use the library at once, said Barbara Barthelmes, the library media specialist at HCC.

“Now it’s so much easier when we put the teams together to have everybody here at one time,” Mrs. Barthelmes said.

With the renovation, the layout of the library changed as well. Bookshelves were moved and the fiction section was reorganized so books are now grouped by genre, rather than by the author’s last name, which makes it easier for students to browse by topic.

“It’s a nice, fresh selection of books,” Mrs. Barthelmes said. “It’s very appealing and easy to browse for the kids.”

The library has seen an increase in foot traffic since the beginning of the school year, and Mrs. Barthelmes says it’s being enjoyed by students and faculty members.

“It’s a really beautiful space and it’s spacious enough to accommodate large groups but still give people privacy,” she said. “It’s fresh and new and bright and has a lot of different, interesting places to gather and work together.”

Just as public libraries around the country have done in recent years, the HCC library has adapted to the needs of its young patrons.

“It fits that idea of a modern library being a place where people meet and connect and learn from each other and share, and not just a place where they go and check out a book and leave,” Mrs. Barthelmes said. “It’s meant to be a place where you stay and make connections.”

The District and HCC are grateful to the Byram Hills Education Foundation for this generous grant.

Students working at a high table in the Cafe area of the newly renovated library at H.C. Crittenden Middle School.

Students gather in the Huddle in the renovated library at HCC.

HCC Middle School Teaching ‘Dream Team’ Wins Prestigious Social Studies Award
Armonk, New York — Deborah DeFrancesco and Sheila St. Onge, veteran social studies teachers at H.C. Crittenden Middle School, were named co-winners of the Westchester Lower Hudson Council for the Social Studies’ Outstanding Middle School Social Studies Classroom Teacher Award.

The teachers, who began working together 26 years ago, collaborate on curriculum, assessment and instruction for the sixth grade, and each teach half of the grade. Mrs. DeFrancesco and Mrs. St. Onge were lauded by Byram Hills officials as a “dream team” that cares deeply about their students and never stops trying to improve their work.

“I am so proud of Deb and Sheila,” H.C. Crittenden Principal Kim Lapple said. “They both put their students first, striving to ensure that each student is motivated and engaged to learn more about others and the world around them. They have been relentless in their pursuit to reflect and refine their craft. They are passionate about challenging their students to be upstanders, to think beyond themselves and consider how to help others.”

They were nominated by Byram Hills Social Studies Chairperson Jennifer Laden, who hailed them as a “dream team.”

“This well-deserved award is a recognition of their careers focused on always putting their students first while challenging each other professionally to continually improve their practice,” Ms. Laden said.

Mrs. DeFrancesco and Mrs. St. Onge have incredibly strong relationships with their students.

“Their work is laser-like focused on continually improving their practice to advance student learning,” Ms. Laden wrote in her nomination. “As new initiatives and educational research emerges, they both engage in a critical review of the work and carefully analyze how it will work for their students and apply it accordingly.”

Recently, the pair have transformed their classrooms into student-centered learning environments where students direct their own learning, she said.

The teachers are not just focused on sixth-grade learning but “on what their students will need to be able to do at each step on their journey toward graduation and beyond and they expertly craft instruction and assessments that give students the skills and knowledge to ensure that future success,” Ms. Laden said.

The teachers were hailed as role models.

“For Sheila and Deb, last year's work is never good enough,” Ms. Laden said. “They work together every day to review their curriculum, instruction, and assessments and reflect on what worked and how it can be better the next time, and they love this part of the work, because it is a continual challenge to always be better.”

The awards were presented on May 23 at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers.

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