Podcast S2. Ep 8: The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child - Samuel Karns

Character Strong · September 24, 2019

Samuel Karns is in his 12th year of education, and this school year marks his second year as an assistant principal of Landrum Middle School in Spring Branch ISD. Prior to this position, he served as the assistant director of student wellness in central office in Spring Branch ISD as well as serving as a Health and Physical Educator at the elementary level for several years. He continues to be a champion and pioneer for the whole school whole community whole child framework through ASCD and CDC. Karns has implemented this framework from a district level, and at the local level through the Greater Houston Leadership group through Harris County. He has also presented this framework at the local, state and national level through ASCD, SHAPE America, TAHPERD, and It’s Time Texas. He resides with his wife and two children in Houston, TX.

We talk with Samuel about the school advisory council at Landrum, how it comes together to support the whole child, and practical ways that they can better serve kids & engage more families in their community.


“...it breaks everybody out of those silos to come to the table. And then you have community members a part of this conversation and family engagement, which is who we choose to have that sits on that SHAC that I referenced earlier, which is the school health advisory council. And so that is your team right there, is somebody from each one of those components coming together to talk about the whole child and how we can support them.”

— Samuel Karns

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Samuel Karns. Samuel's in his 12th year of education, and this school year marks his second year as an assistant principal of Landrum Middle School in Spring Branch, ISD. Prior to this position, he served as the assistant director of student wellness and central office in Spring Branch, ISD, as well as serving as a health and physical education teacher at the elementary level for several years. He continues to be a champion and pioneer for the whole school, whole community, whole child framework through ASCD and CDC. Karns has implemented this framework from a district level and at the local level through the greater Houston leadership group through Harris County. He has also presented this framework at the local, state and national level through ASCD, Shape America, [Topard 00:01:03] and It's Time Texas. He resides with his wife and two children in Houston, Texas.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Samuel Karns. All right. We are super excited to have Samuel Karns on the CharacterStrong podcast. How are you today, my friend?
  • Samuel: I'm doing well. I really appreciate the invitation to get a chance to share with you guys and share with your listeners about the great work we're doing down here in Spring Branch, ISD.
  • John: Yeah. And for those that maybe don't know where is Spring Branch?
  • Samuel: We're in Houston, Texas.
  • John: All right. Yeah. And we love the Houston, Texas area. We've done multiple trainings down there and have developed great friendships and connections. And so I'm looking forward to the next time we're down in that area. Hopefully get to see you in person. But you're at, is it Landrum Middle School in Spring branch?
  • Samuel: Yep.
  • John: And one of the things that connected us is you actually wrote a blog post for us, and I loved it. I mean, we're obviously in the work of supporting the whole child and I loved it and I just want to dig right in. We really believe in that idea of cut the fluff, get right to the stuff on these podcasts. So let's talk about it. You have a framework and it's the whole school, whole community, whole child, or WSCC framework. Let talk about it. Tell me more about that and the work that you've been doing around it.
  • Samuel: Sure. So in short, because that is a mouthful, we call it the whisk model. So as you mentioned earlier, whole school, whole community, whole child is the framework that we really believe heart and soul here in Spring Branch, ISD. But one of the things that I really love about the framework is it kind of breaks all stakeholders out of silos, which is what we need to be doing in education anyways. And so here in Texas, we have what's called a SHAC, or a school health advisory council that's actually required by law that each district has a school health advisory council, which is consisting of 51% community and 49% staff. So if you do a deep dive into the framework itself, which again I can't take credit for the framework, but one of the things before I jump too far ahead is this framework's actually only been around for about five years.
  • Samuel: So we were doing things related to coordinated school health, which was through CDC, for a long time. And then the whole child initiative kind of came out through ASCD. And what we really appreciated is around 2015 they kind of married the two frameworks together. And so that's where you went from an eight component framework, and then the whole child framework, which has like five tenets, and they married it together to create a framework that now has 10 components. And so if you look at the framework itself, it kind of has the child on the inside, because that's the center of what we should be doing around the work that we're doing in schools. But if you break out and you look at all the other 10 components, community involvement, family engagement, staff wellness, social and emotional climate, which is where you guys really fit into the picture with CharacterStrong. And I really enjoyed from the training on how that plugs in. Counseling, psychological and social services, health services, physical education, physical activity.
  • Samuel: And so what I would ask listeners to think about when you're looking at this framework is who else kind of fits into those components? So for example, if you're physical education, that might be your physical education teacher at the school. If you're a nutrition environment, who are you at the school? That might be like your cafeteria manager and then simultaneously look at the rest of the components. But health services, that's like your nurse. Your counseling, that's your counselor. So again, it breaks everybody out of those silos to come to the table. And then you have community members a part of this conversation and family engagement, which is who we choose to have that sits on that SHAC that I referenced earlier, which is the school health advisory council. And so that is your team right there, is somebody from each one of those components coming together to talk about the whole child and how we can support them.
  • John: That is so good. And I mean, digging into this work more and more and having been at the district level and just thinking about ... and what I love just hearing you share this, is how important that policy piece is. Because when you say that this is something that's required by law, and even just that idea though of sometimes we need that to, with everything else that is in quotes on our plate. Right? And it sometimes nudges us along to go, "No, this is critically important and we're going to make this happen and we make time for that which is most important and/or what we put attention to in terms of either what is policy or what is being evaluated and sometimes those aren't always, maybe the best things or the highest leverage things."
  • John: But this is such a great ... I'm looking at the visual right now. I love you sharing how those have come together and the work that was already being done, ASCD, the work being done in Texas. Right. And so maybe talk then in the shorter length of the time that we have. What are some of the then practical ways that this has come to life? Like as you're coming into another school year, you're an assistant principal, right? What is the work? Give us some ideas of how this is being put into practice.
  • Samuel: Yeah, for sure. So we actually have a coordinated school health checklist, which is kind of a tool through the alliance for healthier generation, which I also referenced in my blog posts. So it's a great tool to measure where your school is at. It's also a great way to get national recognition. And you kind of touched on this earlier, so I did leave central office. In my former role, I was the assistant director for student wellness and really a big driver behind this in the greater Houston area engaging with Harris County and all of the surrounding school districts. I've presented at this at the state, local and national level, just really trying to get this framework out

“...it takes all stakeholders. So that means bringing in the families. And that means bringing in our community members and really leveraging off of the collective greatness by leveraging off the strengths and gifts that everybody brings to the table, but then also tapping into those untapped resources.”

— Samuel Karns


  • Samuel: But from an implementation standpoint, the way we do it in Spring Branch is we have 41 campuses, but each campus has a C SHAC. So I mentioned the SHAC earlier, which was the school health advisory council. We call that the D SHAC, which is the district level, but then the campuses have these specific teams. And so I have a team that meets every month to look at what are the needs of our kids. I also referenced, it might've been more in correspondence, but we use a tool called Panorama. So we're measuring school connectedness to kind of see do our kids feel safe? Do they feel like they belong? Do they trust the adults in the system? And so we look at that data as a C SHAC, a campus school health advisory council, and we look at, okay, where do we need to start making some changes? Where can we build stronger culture? Where can we help our kids feel connected to the campus itself? And how can we engage our parents and our families?
  • Samuel: And so one of those things that we did last year in looking at the work of trying to get more family engagement, we actually set up something coming up this Wednesday. We're going to be doing a community walk where we break up into teams and go out into our community based off of this need where we're saying, "We need more families engaged because we're missing that component out of this framework in the work that we're doing." And so we're going to go meet our parents where they're at. And we have about 60 people lined up in teams to go out to seven different apartment complexes this Wednesday to really engage in this work and build that school connectedness with our families around our community.
  • Samuel: And just to elaborate a little bit more. So we also have the K SHAC, which is the kids' school health advisory councils. So we talk about building the leaders of tomorrow. And that's why I say in Texas we like to use the term SHAC a lot. So school health advisory council, so that's the D SHAC, the C SHAC and the K SHAC. So that's the kids' version where we have different people, stakeholders from these same components coming together and they get to actually hear the voice of our kids because that is our heart and soul. And as you guys said, the plate, I mean the whole child obviously is the plate in my opinion. That's my philosophy, which is why it really aligns with the conversation that you guys are having revolved around the work on social and emotional climate.
  • John: Yep. So good. Well what have been some of the results that you've seen? I mean, this is incredibly intentional focus and I love even that fun fact of being in Texas a lot of like I'm going to have to bring up the SHAC thing. Tell me about what are the different groups that you have, because I've heard about the SHAC, but tell me about some of the results that you've been seeing because of a focus on this work.
  • Samuel: Sure. So because of the tool that I mentioned earlier, so the alliance for a healthier generation, which is the coordinated school checklist. And so take those 10 components and you kind of give yourself a score in that same area for all 10 of those components. Two years ago we actually, or I guess this would be the third year. So we're one of the only middle schools in Spring Branch that is a bronze level. So we are recognized at the national level as being one of the healthiest schools in America. But in our first year in doing this with the program, with that particular tool, through the alliance for a healthier generation, we had 11 campuses get recognized. So again, taking the great work that we're already doing, but then celebrating our folks and then bringing that awareness to our board members, to our superintendent, to our principals.
  • Samuel: And then starting to have the conversation like, "Hey, how's Landrum getting recognized? Hey, how's Westwood getting recognized?" Because like I said, we had about 10 elementary to also receive bronze and a few that received the silver level. Obviously our end goal is to try to get the gold. But we have folks who are getting recognized for the work that they're doing. And so I've seen a lot of intentional changes taking place related around policy, physical activity, minutes needed. I can tell you in our district we have a big push for social emotional supports and so that's starting as early in pre-K and elementary.
  • Samuel: We just created an advisory. So again, that word intentional. We created a weekly advisory on Mondays and I'm happy to say I believe everything went through and we actually will be using CharacterStrong at the middle school level for sixth, seventh and eighth grade. And my hope is to look at some vertical alignment and look at some of the newer curriculum that you guys designed for elementary and get that really going, so that way it's very similar messaging, very similar concepts, and we start to ingrain that early on with our kids. So that way when they get to middle school they've already had a taste of it, and then with us in middle school. They'll get that again in high school.
  • John: That's awesome. Well and that's great news to hear and grateful to be having the opportunity to partner with you. How about this? To close out, then, today's podcast, looking back at your blog for us and just because these philosophies align so closely. So maybe end with a comment around this. You say, "One of the things I hear a lot is that you cannot add one more thing to our plate. And my hope is that we can transform their thinking to recognize the," whole child as the plate and that we may need to reorganize our plate to be more intentional of bringing in SEL. Talk to me just a little bit about just that important idea that this is the plate.
  • Samuel: Sure. So, I support the academics but I'm a very big believer of Maslow and so, I always preach to my own team. So I have eighth grade this year and I talk about how we have to Maslow before we bloom. I think that the other pieces don't really fall into play until you've really taken care of the basic necessities for kids. And then we've always heard that famous quote that talks about kids just don't learn from people that they don't like. And so for me, this year has been a big push to just have my folks be very relational because you guys mentioned something at a training recently that kind of hit home so to speak, but I believe it was Houston who mentioned, somebody in a former podcast as well talked about. Instead of saying, "I don't have time for that," you might as well just say like, "That's not my priority."
  • Samuel: And so in shifting my mindset, when I think like that, I feel like we are making the time because it is a priority to us to build in. So that's why we've added the advisory lessons to be very intentional, to build that foundation so that that way when we're trying to help our kids reach success, they trust in what we're saying, they feel like we genuinely care about them. But again, through this framework of the whisk model, the whole school, whole community, whole child, you know, it takes all stakeholders. So that means bringing in the families. And that means bringing in our community members and really leveraging off of the collective greatness by leveraging off the strengths and gifts that everybody brings to the table, but then also tapping into those untapped resources.
  • Samuel: So again, if you don't have a foundation to where all of those things can stand on solid ground, it's going to fail. And so when I think, like I said, about this whisk model, this framework is the foundation for building that collaborative spirit, that collaborative engagement that we want from all different stakeholders who don't necessarily get to have a voice at the table.
  • John: Yep. So good. Well, let's close with that today and I just, that power, the whole school, the whole community, the whole child that we need to understand that holistic approach. Appreciate your vision with that. How can people connect with you? Obviously your most recent blog is on our CharacterStrong site. Any other way that someone can connect with you that's listening?
  • Samuel: Yes. So they can follow me on Twitter. I tweet out a lot about my school, like the community walk that's coming up. So it's the at handle Samuel, S-A-M-U-E-L underscore Karns, K-A-R-N-S.
  • John: Great.
  • Samuel: Oh, they can find me on LinkedIn. I also have an Instagram and a Facebook and I run Landrum's Twitter account too, so if they want to follow the work our school is doing related to those SCL and advisory lessons, they can follow us at Landrum, L-A-N-D-R-U-M, M-S for middle school.
  • John: Awesome. Well thank you for your time, my friend, and I look forward to connecting with you again soon.
  • Samuel: Likewise, thank you guys for the opportunity and you all enjoy the rest of your afternoon.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we are supporting schools, visit CharacterStrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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