Kevin Grawer remembers reviewing “anonymous” National Honor Society (NHS) applications—but of course, committee members knew the captain of the football team and the president of the chess club. The reviewers often hesitated to extend membership to applicants who were “known troublemakers,” while applications from reclusive students simply weren’t there.

Now, in Grawer’s 10 years as principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, concerted outreach to the qualified-but-overlooked has tripled NHS membership and created a thriving, relevant organization.

“We want kids who have the qualifications to have a shot at this,” Grawer says. “We want to expose them to the world of NHS, the world of supporting each other, the world of service, and helping their fellow classmates.”

Today’s National Honor Societies and student councils are striving for a makeover, blending traditional achievers with the broad array of students populating American schools. Making organizations welcoming for students of all backgrounds—LGBTQ, immigrants, students of color, or learning or physically disabled—requires concerted effort but yields active clubs that are more deeply embedded in the lives of their schools.

Building Relationships

The primary goal of inclusion isn’t just about increasing membership numbers, but also helping students see themselves as worthy of recognition, say advisers and administrators.

Working with NHS, and under the leadership of motivated NHS advisers, Grawer replaced an exclusionary application mindset with an inclusionary one.

“Why not let them in and hold them accountable to the rigorous expectations?” he says. “Most people tend to rise to the level of expectations we place on them.”

Finding students who could benefit from NHS membership requires “listening to the kids and listening to their parents,” says Shari Benites, minority achievement coordinator and director of the Center for Leadership and Public Service at Yorktown High School in Arlington, VA.

“We’re here for them,” she says. “They’re not here for us. We’re here to do what they need and not what makes it easy for us.”

Benites never takes an “if you build it, they will come” approach. Even before she became NHS co-facilitator in 2015, Benites would encourage students of color to apply. Some were immigrants or first-generation Americans unfamiliar with NHS, so she would meet them personally to explain the opportunity and help with the application. As co-facilitator, she can no longer help with applications, but she still contacts students who need encouragement or an introduction to the benefits of NHS membership.

Her efforts attract students not normally associated with NHS. In one instance, Benites discovered that a life skills student had the required 3.5 GPA for NHS membership, and he “ended up being great. He would dedicate his lunch period to helping the adaptive physical education class.”

Overcoming Barriers

Benites’ efforts earned her a 2016 Champion of Change designation from President Barack Obama. Her path to White House recognition started with a career in advertising and marketing, followed by a switch to teaching and then to minority achievement and leadership, all motivated by frustration at seeing students of color overrepresented in special education and underrepresented in gifted programs.

Benites admitted to being a “middle-aged white lady still trying to figure this out for myself,” but she has taught herself to ask, “Whose voice is not in this picture, and how can I understand that perspective before I go off making decisions that work for me but don’t work for other people?”

She splits her time between Yorktown’s leadership center—the only one of its kind among Arlington County’s high schools—and its Minority Student Achievement Network chapter, but “realized pretty quickly it’s a beautiful marriage of jobs.

“In the minority-achievement half of my job, I’m getting to know those kids,” she says. “I’m building relationships with them, so it’s easier to say, ‘You should do this program,’ or ‘You should join this.’ They have that trust in me.”

Grawer’s NHS advisers, who make the final membership decisions, also bring perspective from their membership on the school’s equity team, which is meant to prevent “inherent biases from inhibiting students.”

In practical use, equity means examining why a promising student doesn’t show leadership in its typical form. Maybe that student is taking younger siblings to school in the morning and then, when the school day ends, working until 10:00 p.m.

“That, to me, is great leadership—a 16-year-old living like a 30-year-old adult,” Grawer says. “My NHS staff leaders really get that and taught me how to look at scholarship. What this kid is doing is more impressive than the soccer team captain.”

Often, students themselves don’t see family leadership as heroic, so they need nudging to work it into their NHS applications. But the message is seeping into the student body, and as a result, “the typical student walking these halls sees NHS as very attainable,” Grawer says.

The Value of Research

On the Friday before spring break in 2014, the Gay-Straight Alliance student liaison of Atherton High School in Louisville, KY, informed Principal Thomas Aberli that a student was preparing to transition from male to female.

Recalling the conversation, “I knew I would have to do some homework,” Aberli says. “I would be responsible for communicating and defending whatever decision I would be making.”

Advisers and administrators agree: Cultivating inclusion requires casting aside emotional reactions and old biases. It means stepping out of comfort zones, but the mission is achievable when the path is paved with solid research.

Aberli dove into court cases, U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights findings, and legal briefs. His research revealed that courts and the Department of Education recognized gender identity as a “real thing”—a revelation in the days before Caitlin Jenner put gender identity in the spotlight.

Aberli also conducted a community survey “to make sure we were reflecting everyone’s viewpoints and made a collective decision on the way we felt this issue needed to be addressed,” he says.

He learned that young people transition in different ways, according to their comfort levels and belief in where they are in the process, personally and socially. He “teared up” a bit when his transitioning student made a simple but profound request—that the principal use her chosen name during the school’s daily birthday announcements.

“For her, that was going to be a sense of validation that the authority of the school recognized her,” he says.

Aberli developed a policy on recognizing both cisgender and transgender students by their gender and allowing access to restrooms and locker rooms. Many students and community members supported the plan, which garnered national attention, while his meticulous research provided defense against the arguments of opponents. It is, he says, OK for people to be uncomfortable about sharing facilities.

“What is not OK for us as individuals, for us as a majority, or for us as a society is to say, based on discomfort, that we’re going to compel the behavior of other people to do something different,” he says. “That was a significant leap in my understanding and why I feel the decision we ultimately made has been defensible legally and professionally for the last four years.”

Benites recharges her work with a lot of reading and professional development. She attends National SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) Project conferences. As a Dream Project board member, she learned about the Dreamer community and resources available to its members. As a facilitator for Challenging Racism, she learns something every time by surrounding herself with people of different experiences and remaining “open to changing my perspective.”

Stronger Schools

Schools benefit when inclusion is the norm. Atherton High School is rising in statewide rankings, and student population has increased, even in an area rich with choices in schools. The “vast majority” of Atherton students saw their inclusive transgender policy as “a great example of how we come together respectfully to deal with a challenging situation and come to a reasonable decision that treats people ethically,” Aberli says.

Students of all backgrounds who feel their views are accepted are likelier to get involved in school activities and clubs, Aberli says—an action that’s vital in creating connections for students who might be more vulnerable to social isolation, depression, and suicide.

Grawer’s NHS accepted a student who was taking a nontraditional education route, complementing home schooling with courses at Maplewood Richmond Heights, and she has “done incredible stuff. She’s a member of our community, and I saw her really become a greater part and have more pride.”

“It definitely opens minds and creates ideas that there are multiple ways to be intellectually skilled in our society and in the world,” he says. “Academics play a role, but let’s try to live out our growth mindset by what [we] do here, as well.”

Through diversity and inclusion, Benites’ students are learning to advocate for themselves and for others—pointing out that Muslim students can’t attend an after-school potluck meal during Ramadan, for example, or talking amongst each other to resolve a difference over who got to hang posters in the school atrium.

“We have to teach our kids—and it’s getting increasingly difficult—how to stand up for what they know is right or think is right, but in a respectful and productive way,” Benites says. “We need to empower them to make change in a way that is constructive.”

Inclusion fits with Maplewood Richmond Heights’ equity model, Grawer says. Society might be short on meritocracy, but if his school can formulate “pockets of meritocracy,” the result “creates buy-in and confidence that students can do things in the outer world and maybe have a sense that hard work does pay off over time.”

“I might be a minority female or Syrian immigrant and English is not my first language, but I’m thriving in a different way, and there’s a niche for me in this place and this society,” Grawer says. “It does create confidence and a sense of self-esteem and self-love that is probably the most important thing a human being can have in terms of living a fulfilling life. Anything we can do to promote that, we will try to do.”

Diane McCormick is a writer based in Pennsylvania.

Sidebar: Keys to Success

Common practices weave through the drive for inclusion:

  • Explain the fit: When recruiting NHS applicants, Yorktown High School’s Shari Benites tells students that NHS allows them to continue doing the community service they enjoy. Membership in NHS is a nationally recognized honor that “indicates you are a person of character,” she tells them.
  • Describe the benefits: Membership in NHS, NJHS, NatStuCo, and other community-service-oriented organizations doesn’t just look good on a college application. Volunteer work creates connections that build each student’s personal network of support, earning letters of recommendation and additional opportunities.
  • Reach out: A flyer or email doesn’t always prompt busy or shy students to apply for activities and opportunities. Advisers and teachers must offer guidance, even in the spur of the moment. “Why don’t we sit here and apply right now?” Benites will ask. “Open your laptop.”
  • Get creative: Students consumed with family duties or jobs might not have the time to perform all their volunteer hours outside of school, or they might lack transportation, so Benites fosters in-school service. Some students take lunch periods to help classmates with Asperger’s syndrome build socialization skills. For one student, she found an opportunity to collect, package, and ship the school’s copier cartridges for recycling.