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Principals share secrets to positive school culture

By Laura Devaney, Managing Editor
December 13th, 2011

Positive school culture is key to student and teacher success, principals say.

Turning around low-performing schools and improving educator morale might seem daunting as school leaders are being asked to do more with less, but some leaders have made marked improvements in their schools with determination and dedication to maintaining a positive school culture.

In a Dec. 8 Education Trust webinar, two school principals detailed how they transformed their schools into positive places where students, teachers, and staff enjoyed their learning and teaching experiences.

In 2001, Ware Elementary School in Fort Riley, Kan., was designated “On Improvement” owing to its low student achievement. Deb Gustafson, who became the school’s principal that year, described the school culture and climate as “toxic.”

There were a significant number of student behavioral issues, nearly half of the school’s staff requested transfers annually, and most parents did not want their children attending the school.

“But the most telling sign of the toxic culture was certainly the achievement—about 70 percent of students annually were not on grade level in reading, and about 60 percent of them were not on grade level in math,” Gustafson said.

Tasked with changing the school environment and doing whatever it took to boost student achievement, Gustafson said she knew she would not be able to make any significant strides in achievement until she improved the culture that existed inside the school building.

Gustafson knew a small number of like-minded educators at Ware Elementary before she assumed the role of principal, and the summer before she took the reins, she assembled a team that would focus on collaborating and identifying what they perceived as the biggest issues that prevented a culture change.

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