Today’s inspirED story is from Grossmont High School in El Cajon, California. Jeremy Hersch, social studies teacher and proud advisor to Grossmont’s inspirED team, shares Grossmont’s journey from supporting a student with canter to completely changing the culture on campus.

In May of 2016, our school held a rally for one of our students, Ryan Wilcox. He was suffering from an aggressive form of Leukemia. A handful of our student leaders got together and thought if we had a dress up day and voluntary lunch time rally if would be a good way to lift Ryan’s spirits. We asked the whole school to dress in red, white, and blue because Ryan loved Captain America! We then organized a lunch time rally for Ryan. I was recently going through the files on my computer and found the schedule we had put together.

Rally For Ryan 

    1. Welcome everyone – “Thank you” for dressing up – Short Video 3 min
    2. Introduce Mr. Stellin
    3. Stellin introduces Ryan and family to say a few words
    4. Something Else
    5. Group Picture

As you can see from our schedule, the rally for Ryan was going to be a relatively small and simple event. Little did we know we were starting on a culture shifting journey for our school. The publicity around the rally went viral. One of Ryan’s heroes, Chris Evans, sent a personal video message for Ryan. Nearly every student in the school dressed up and our gym was as full as it had ever been. This in itself would have been an unbelievable experience. However, later that summer, Ryan received the surprise of his lifetime. Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey Jr. showed up at his house! They had seen the love and support Ryan had received from Grossmont and the community. What started out as a simple idea to cheer up one of our students had turned into one of the most remarkable experiences our school has ever experienced.

Sadly, Ryan passed away in September of 2016. Our school and community were devastated. Again, a small group of student leaders decided we should do a vigil on campus for Ryan. Through the power of social media, we had over a thousand people show up along with eight local TV stations. I was standing near our outdoor stage with a couple of our students and a huge crowd of students and people from the community. None of us had any idea, again, what was about to forever change our campus. We decided to have students speak about Ryan. One of the guiding principles of our school is that student leadership should drive our campus. We strive to place as few adults as possible in front of our students and community. The students who spoke were eloquent and did an exceptional job. Again, we still had no idea the impact Ryan and the #ryanstrong movement was having on our campus.

For the remainder of the school year #ryanstrong was everywhere. It became the driving force on our campus. All of our sports teams adopted #ryanstrong in their own creative ways. It was a part of every assembly, dance, and sports event and a daily reminder of Ryan.

Once the emotions had settled down we all started to realize what #ryanstrong stood for and the impact it had on our campus. Our students were a little nicer to each other. Teachers were showing a little more empathy to each other and to the students. Ryan had reminded us all what it meant to be kind, positive, and care about each other. In order to capture the momentum generated from Ryan we immediately began to capture his spirit through a campus-wide branding movement.

We were lucky to be chosen to attend the Facebook inspirED Conference in October of 2016. At the conference, the pieces came together for our team. Grossmont has been working hard on creating a better experience for all students using SEL techniques. Our SEL lessons had not really gained 100% traction yet on campus and we were looking for something to jump start the process.

Over the two days of the inspirED Conference we developed our plan. We took our key words and the behaviors we wanted to see from our students and turned them into posters. Next, we began passing them out to our staff as a way to get the message out to our students. For example, instead of continually yelling at students to “be quiet for the morning announcements” we started shifting our culture to saying “please be respectful for the morning announcements”.




We then began making other posters that connected our schools core values to action messages we have been trying to teach. Our staff was warming very quickly to this new style of teaching our students. However, the complaint was the teachers did not have enough time in the day to teach lessons around respect, empathy, etc. We then came up with a schedule to allow for a 20 minutes lesson each week on Friday that every student in the school will receive at the same time. The teachers voted overwhelmingly to adopt the new schedule! Our goal was to create powerful lessons and a shared experience for our students. We have had several lessons to start of this school year. The feedback has been incredibly positive from both students and teachers! We are looking forward to creating impactful lessons for both students and our staff.

What started out as our school coming together to help a sick student has transformed the way our school looks at everything. The lessons we learned from Ryan will continue to shape our school and help us create a positive environment for all students. His messages are everywhere on our campus. Through the use of pushing our message out through posters and weekly lessons, we are developing a strong school culture. We will always be grateful to Ryan for all he taught us. Ryan’s favorite quote is all over our school: “Strength doesn’t really come from your muscles. It comes from your spirit, and your heart and love“.