Opinion: My (Complicated) Skirmish with River Hill High School

In September 2016, I penned an open letter to the River Hill administration criticizing the cancellation of HawkFest. Now that I have graduated, I feel reasonably comfortable sharing the entirety of the events that occurred, and how myself and my sisters were affected by my decision to take the stand I did. Needless to say, the following essay represents my views and my views only.

1200px-River_Hill_High_School_Entrance

A copy of this essay circulated a week or so before it was officially published, earning me a 1,642 word response from a student who opposed my viewpoint. The essay was subsequently edited to include the information which this student provided.

In September of 2016, the president of my school’s overarching Student Government Association, the Executive Board, a girl named Anna Selbrede who also happened to be my sister, was pulled aside by the group’s faculty advisor. Calmly, it was explained to her that she had failed in her duties. A controversy had arisen overnight, centered around the decision of the school to cancel HawkFest. This debacle, according to the River Hill administration, was Anna’s fault, because it was her brother who’d kickstarted this controversy.

Many years will pass, and I am certain I will still feel the same righteous indignation at the memory of the subtle threat toward my sister, pulled aside for my words. She was told “if your own brother cannot understand what you’re doing, you are failing in your duties”.

Apparently, in the eyes of the River Hill Administration, the student government existed to communicate their whims. Go figure.

So, what was HawkFest? What happened to it? And why should you care?

What was HawkFest?

For those unacquainted with River Hill High School and its traditions, HawkFest was a small festival of sorts held every year around homecoming as a spirit event and a way to raise funds for clubs. It had evolved from an annual parade which, similar to many non-academic events at River Hill, eventually faded from the school. Organized by the River Hill Executive Board, it wasn’t the biggest school event, but it drew a sizable number of Clarksville denizens and served to bring the community together.

When the decision was announced by the school’s new administration to cancel HawkFest, River Hill would claim the decision was the students’, even occasionally implying it was the choice of the Executive Board. This was not the case. In reality, the faculty advisor had approached the Executive Board during one of their morning meetings and told them the event had been cancelled, and it was a done deal.

What Happened to HawkFest?

Further investigation would later reveal that a group of students had voted on the subject– the Leadership class, a group of kids who, while intelligent and honorable, had not been elected to represent the school or their peers (though there is a sizable overlap between SGA and the class). According to the student who contacted me with corrections, the decision was made after a cost/benefit analysis indicated that the event had turned into an event where organizations simply “begged people for money”.  

Now, I’d never been a fan of HawkFest, but it irked me that it had been cancelled without what I saw as due process. Worse, it stung that the administration was using my sister’s organization as their scapegoat. So I penned an open letter, emailed it to the administration, and posted it on Facebook.

Why Did I Care?

The roots of my argument were as follows: Kids at River Hill are under an increasing amount of pressure as it gradually shaves off recreational organizations and events in favor of further standardization. Clubs are cool and help kids relax. Please, stop cutting the few chances the students have to be more than a name on an attendance sheet.

Besides, so what if the event had become primarily a fundraiser? River Hill is a stressful, test-oriented high school, and the clubs and organizations within the school deserve the chance to raise money for their operations. Considering that the school system is currently laboring under an extremely large health care deficit due to the corrupt actions of former superintendent Renee Foose, and teachers within River Hill can barely afford school supplies, it is absolutely valid for organizations to desire funds.

The student who contacted me was adamant that clubs didn’t make very much money off of HawkFest, but this cannot really be proven or disproven since I’ve heard the opposite from several students and teachers. Let’s not forget, for high schoolers, every penny counts. According to a friend of mine, their club could only afford one, maybe two events per year because they weren’t as well known or funded as academic clubs such as FBLA. It is also worth noting that the event allowed many clubs to advertise and recruit new members.

The student also expressed the opinion (shared by the administration) that HawkFest did not bring the community together. This is another matter of opinion that cannot be proven or disproven- I would argue that the overwhelmingly positive response to my letter demonstrated that it mattered to many people in the community.

But remember– the letter wasn’t even about HawkFest, really. The elimination of HawkFest was a symptom of a larger trend in the River Hill community, that of the unhealthy focus on test scores and numbers over learning and growth, the same focus that drove many of my peers to academic dishonesty.

My mother and sisters served on the School Improvement Team, an organization of administrators, parents, and students which slowly shifted focus from improving the school’s environment to improving AP scores. HawkFest was not an isolated incident.

How Did the Community React?

Almost immediately after sending this letter, I received a respectful but curt response from the River Hill administration, telling me that essentially my concerns were noted but disregarded. They informed me that they were always open to hearing the opinions of the students, and that I could drop by any time to talk about this with them… their office was always open. My family did stop by the office, but receives little more than empty platitudes and none of the information that the student who recently contacted me would later provide.

It was, frankly, a miracle that we even got an appointment. I cannot speak for the school, but I can assure the reader that in my three years with this administration, I never once heard of a student who was allowed past the secretaries to speak with our principal. In fact, a friend of mine tried desperately to graduate early that year as he was moving (yet again) and did not wish to attend a fourth high school. The administration never got back to him, despite him stopping by multiple times for aid.

(The student who contacted me related an extremely positive experience with the administration, saying that she and her friends had no problem reaching the principal.  While this is the first I’ve ever heard of somebody having such a positive experience, that in no way means that there aren’t many more with whom the admin interfaced with easily. I leave it to the reader to consider this disconnect).

The admin’s response might’ve been the end of it, but the letter was shared across Facebook and for a short span of time, went viral.

The next few days were surreal: people across the county read and discussed my letter, some even approaching me in the hallways to express their agreement and indignation. Predictably, not everyone sympathized with my letter. After hearing some students speak out in support of me, my theatre teacher halted rehearsal to give the cast a lecture on how losing HawkFest was not something to bemoan because she didn’t sell many tickets there anyway, apparently. I received one or two nasty looks from one of the vice principals, and this was when my sister was pulled aside by the Faculty Advisor.

What Went Wrong?

I could write a whole essay criticizing the way the Executive Board was handled when my sister was President, and how exhausting and demoralizing it was for her, but that is not the point of this essay. And, again, neither is HawkFest. This passage was written as a critique of the shifting culture at River Hill, and how the administrators’ reacted to my respectful criticisms.

By the time Homecoming rolled around, Clarksville had kicked up enough of a fuss that the administration hastily installed several features of HawkFest into the Homecoming Game itself, and proceeded to claim it had been their plan from the start.

Yet, even if this was always the plan, the fault still lies with the administration for never accurately conveying their own wishes and desires, instead pushing them off onto my sister and scapegoating her instead of taking the time to communicate this course of action which, according to the student who contacted me, had always been the anticipated course of action.

In Conclusion…

I remain appalled by their refusal to respond to the situation honestly or respectfully, and angered by the intimidation tactics attempted against me and my sister.

As a graduated student with little to no involvement in the politics of this my Senior year, I in no way claim that the attitudes I am criticizing remain at the school.

At River Hill, I was fortunate to have so many kind, intelligent, wildly passionate teachers and faculty. I hope that the administration that oversees them is able to mature in their estimation of students and teachers alike, and address the community directly without half-truths or blame games.

I wrote a letter to criticize the destructive focus on test scores at River Hill, and my sister was penalized for it despite not having been included in any decisions related to HawkFest. The administration failed to acknowledge the roots of my argument, focusing on HawkFest on a surface level and not even communicating their plans for it adequately to the community at large.

Evidently, others have had far more positive experiences with these organizations. It is my opinion that this does not invalidate the negative experiences many others have endured, such as the first day of sophomore year when almost every single upperclassman female was dress coded without so much as a warning of a change in policy; or the way my sister was cut entirely out of the decision making process for so much of SGA. My conversation with the student who contacted me illuminated, if nothing else, the sheer disconnect in the way the administration treated different students and accurately communicated their thoughts to them.

I made the choice to “dredge up” this particular mess, not because I enjoy wallowing in past misfortune, but because I believe it serves as an example of a disservice wrought upon the student body by a test-oriented administration. My experience is not universal, but it is still worth considering if we hope to build a River Hill where it is truly a great day to be a Hawk.

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