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Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools: Building Communities of Hope

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools: Building Communities of Hope

by Sarah Kosch

Story Highlights

  • The division won the 2020 Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award
  • The division was also recognized as a 2020 Gallup Exceptional Workplace
  • CliftonStrengths is part of a larger vision for engagement and wellbeing

The Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award recognizes institutions doing exceptional work in integrating CliftonStrengths for Students across their jurisdictions and campuses. Gallup will be featuring the winners in a series of articles to highlight their accomplishments and share how they are using strengths to help students thrive in school and all areas of their lives.

What does it look like when a focus on students' strengths intersects with teacher and staff engagement, parental support, and community involvement? Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools in Alberta, Canada.

Their framework puts strengths at the core of their work­ -- and it shows.

Though the division faces the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of other economic concerns, it's created a resilient workplace culture to withstand the disruption and continue to foster the hope and wellbeing of its teachers, staff and students.

Strengths at the Core of the Work

This year, Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools was awarded the Don Clifton Strengths for Students Award and was named a Gallup Exceptional Workplace for the fourth year in a row. Fittingly, our conversation about strengths for students began with discussing the strengths of the division's employees.

Former Superintendent David Keohane -- who served Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools for 11 years before announcing his retirement from the division last spring -- and Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rhonda Nixon shared the school system's framework, collaboratively developed by Keohane in 2009 as he continued building on his predecessor's decision to work from a strengths-based stance within the division.

"We saw it as a vehicle to move people's attitudes about work beyond the status quo. If we had ways to talk collectively about how to be our best -- and strengths is a way to do that -- we improve the system," said Keohane.

He worked with his senior administrative team and school administrators to design an educational vision focused on clear priorities (Core of the Work), designated results (Outcomes) and protocols for determining employee fit (Relationships).

From the first step of ensuring the right fit all the way through enhancing the employee experience, they focus on cultivating great teachers and great leaders and developing their strengths so they can be meaningfully engaged in their work and further engage parents and students. That begins with giving employees the opportunity to do what they do best every day -- both a Gallup Q12 employee engagement item and a tenet of CliftonStrengths.

Determining a person's CliftonStrengths helps to identify what that person does best so they can be intentional about applying their talents to their work and life.

Just as every division employee at Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools takes the CliftonStrengths assessment, every student learns their top talents as well, using Clifton StrengthsExplorer (a version of the assessment for children) for grades four through nine and the CliftonStrengths assessment for grades 10 through 12. The division has also begun leading a strengths-based parenting course to bring parents an increased awareness of how they can adopt a growth mindset and help children thrive by focusing on their own and their children's strengths. Even the Board of Trustees asked to incorporate CliftonStrengths into their work to enhance their governance capacities with a strengths mindset after seeing the successful outcomes of student and staff engagement.

"I would say our success is tied to employee engagement and student engagement and all the work that we do to bond those together through strengths," Nixon said. "Strengths is saturated in the hearts and minds of people here because it's necessary to take a talent-based rather than a deficit-based focus as part of a larger pedagogical focus of nurturing a growth mindset in the division."

"Our success is tied to employee engagement and student engagement and all the work that we do to bond those together through strengths."

Strengths in Action

Data matter for Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools. Division leaders measure employee and student engagement, collect community input, and use what they know to further their work in strengths as part of a larger vision for staff and student engagement and wellbeing in their school system.

What do the numbers look like in action?

Teachers and staff defining what they really do at work and how they can use their strengths to have an impact. Staff revealing that for the first time, they didn't dread Data Day -- an annual analysis and professional development event -- after dividing tasks by strengths. An IT employee who didn't think he had relationship skills discovering Relator among his top five CliftonStrengths themes and having his "best day ever" when he was able to draw upon that strength to help a student in need.

For students, it's participating as "health champions" to celebrate the strengths of every student and to educate other students about how strengths are being leveraged in student committees, in extracurricular clubs and on school teams. With encouragement from teacher leads, health champions support the development of clubs and other organizations that foster students' wellbeing spiritually, socially, emotionally, academically/vocationally, financially, physically and communally.

"The focus is on how knowing our talents and developing them into our strengths helps each of us find a way to thrive within our faith community," Nixon said.

Building Communities of Hope

Another powerful way that the data have helped the division improve engagement and wellbeing is the creation of a leadership course called Building Communities of Hope.

Using Gallup Student Poll data, division leaders found that students who were classified as "engaged" in grade six were less engaged by grade 10 and then scoring even lower in grade 12. In analyzing the data further, they discovered that many First Nation, Métis and Inuit students were polling those results. They applied for a grant with the goal of leveraging strengths and wellbeing strategies to create hope within students.

"If we had ways to talk collectively about how to be our best -- and strengths is a way to do that -- we improve the system."

They started with a group of volunteers from grades 10 through 12 who read books about hope and wellbeing and worked with a teacher to put together lessons on their most exciting discoveries. Building Communities of Hope also worked to promote mentorship by bringing in middle school students to partner with the high school students in setting and meeting goals using a strengths-based approach. The course created an inclusive social space where students could discuss and share ways to maintain their concentration on goals and become even more dedicated to their strategies.

Keohane explained how this focus on hope can ease the fear and anxiety of transitioning into uncertain situations like middle school or high school.

"From this experience, when the kids from junior high actually come and talk about what hope means, how they can be hopeful in their lives and ambassadors of hope, how they can solve problems, talk about the high school experience -- it takes that anxiety away and enables them to thrive," he said.

Persistently assessing growth within the organization and identifying measurable outcomes is a huge part of what's made their success possible, but Keohane boils it down to the value they provide: "When the community says, 'I can't imagine my community without Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools,' and they believe in our contribution, that's how we know what we're doing is working."

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