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Principals share secrets to positive school culture

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.
From there, Gustafson created a list of the biggest barriers to student achievement and a positive culture and climate.

Gustafson defines school culture as “how we do business, what we allow and don’t allow, and the feelings you get when you walk into school.” Climate “changes day to day depending on what’s going on … but it is that daily climate that ultimately creates your culture, and culture will be eroded when people let climate issues like jealous, disrespect, and negativity go unchecked.”

When the staff arrived in the fall, Gustafson established open forums where teachers and staff could vent their frustrations and raise concerns. The improvement team recorded everything the staff said and addressed all concerns as quickly as possible.

“Then, we established the one non-negotiable thing in the building,” she said. Gustafson said she realized that because the teachers were changing their former practices, they might make mistakes along the way—and that was all right.

“We told them that as long as they were moving in that direction, there would never be any reprimands for errors or mistakes. The non-negotiable was respect—we would have respect for one another, for parents, and for students,” she said.

“Finally, we established what our mission was going to be: a committed, caring culture in our building,” she said. “To establish that, we really had to have the dialog about what that looks like, what are the rules and procedures in that type of culture. … We’d continue to believe that it’s not about what our students do or don’t do; it’s about the commitment from the staff and what we will or will not do.”

Sometimes, school leaders must re-evaluate how certain things are accomplished. When she arrived at Ware Elementary School, Gustafson said the school’s music and physical education teachers created class schedules. Gustafson assumed that responsibility herself, and while it initially met with resistance, teachers were thrilled when she managed to boost their daily 30-minute planning periods to 60 minutes—teachers in the same grades had the same planning periods each day.

Gustafson required teachers to spend that additional planning time collaborating with teachers in their same grade levels, brainstorming ways to boost student achievement.

“We saw some immediate [improvements in] student achievement just because teachers were collaborating,” she said.

“Understand that you cannot do this job alone—you have to create a team,” she said. “You have to have a team and lead from a team concept. And when you [do that], you’re showing your teachers how to function as a team.”

Starting from scratch

Conrad Lopes, founding principal of Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville, N.C., found himself with what most leaders would consider a dream: He was able to hand-pick and hire all of the teachers for the new high school where he would be principal.

One of the top-performing high schools in the state, Jack Britt High School has only a small gap in achievement between its black and white students. Lopes is now the principal of Stratford High School in Goose Creek, S.C., which has narrowed its gaps since his arrival.

“You need to be credible and make sure you bring the right people in,” Lopes said.

“It all starts with our administration and our principal. They allow us to do our jobs in the classroom. They create the culture. They create the atmosphere of teamwork. If it weren’t for that, our school would not be as successful as it is,” said Laura Bailey, a teacher at Jack Britt High School.

Lopes said that one of his strategies involved integrating relationship-based questions into the teacher interview process.

Teacher-to-teacher relationships are important and help build a positive school environment. Lopes said all teachers should know each other’s teaching skills and personalities well enough to provide a professional reference for a fellow educator if asked.

Making sure teachers are willing to meet student challenges is important, too.

“You need teachers willing to teach at-risk kids,” he said. “I say that if you’re too good to teach at-risk kids, you’re probably too good to teach for me.”

While students are held accountable for their learning, educators must be held accountable as well, and they should examine what they are doing as teachers to take students’ learning to the next level, Lopes added.

Lopes and Gustafson both had clear plans for their schools—plans that encompassed thinking about the school climate and culture, and not just about academics.

Changing school culture is easier once you identify the problems that exist within your school, Lopes said. School principals should ask themselves, “Do I want my child in this class?” “If the answer is ‘no,’ you have to help make a change and make it better,” he said.“If the learning environment in this building is not good for the adults, it would be absolutely toxic for the kids. It’s up to all of us in this building to create this appropriate culture,” Gustafson said. She noted that while Lopes had an ideal staff situation, most school leaders come into a school with teachers already in place. But this isn’t necessarily a deterrent to success.

“A significant culture change can be made without having the opportunity to choose your own teachers,” Gustafson said.

“[Principals] need to be well-read and keep up with current practices,” Lopes said. “It’s not about programs; it’s about people. We have to know what the current research is and understand the changes that are occurring, especially when you get into classroom instruction.”

The Education Trust webinar was hosted by Karen Chenoweth and Christina Theokas, who co-authored Getting It Done: Leading Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, a book examining the beliefs and practices of principals at high-poverty schools that predominantly serve students of color and are rapidly improving or high achieving.

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