Focusing on School Culture JOURNEYS

By Heather Mattson / December 18, 2013

In my years workinAmargosa Journeys Project 8-9-13g in and studying school and district improvement, climate or culture usually gets left to the bottom of the list when the rubber hits the road, despite best intentions. As a facilitator following the story of Amargosa Valley School, one thing that has really jumped out at me is the emphasis of the principal, Robert Williams, on school culture at all levels –staff, students, parents, and greater community.

As noted in our second episode profiling Amargosa, halfway through the 2012-2013 school year, the principal was re-assigned and Williams was made the head teacher. In that role, Williams began focusing on culture. He quickly recognized the staff was confused about the school’s priorities and direction. His response was to get into classrooms every day, leave feedback, and communicate effectively with the teaching staff – a well-received approach. Additionally, every Sunday night, he wrote a weekly update including all of the activities and information the staff would need for the coming week  – another strategy to keep staff informed and engaged.

Similarly, as head teacher, he began reaching out to parents and the community. Asking them to be involved at the school, providing clear opportunities for them to do so, and providing food (always a winner!). Parents had previously felt excluded from the school and this change ultimately contributed to their support of the district in hiring Williams.

Immediately before the school year began, Amargosa staff had a week of concentrated professional development. Instinctively, Williams hired a consultant to spend a day on personality profile training. He knew that new and old staff needed to come together as a cohesive team and mobilize around the enormous challenge ahead of them. Additionally, the staff participated in Time to Teach: Evidence Based Classroom Management for the 21st Century training. This was in response to a district audit that identified classroom management as an area of weakness.

Williams is also reaching out to the greater community. Amargosa School sits right next to the community center. The community center has been the gym and activity center for the school for years, but over the past 5 to 10 years communication between the school and the center has waned, frustrating the town secretary and board, who were rarely made aware of the school activities scheduled at the center. Williams saw the center as an unused asset and started including the town secretary in the planning process for the school schedule of activities. He also worked to address any problems caused by students at the center, which had been previously ignored. Williams is also engaging local businesses in student achievement by asking them to provide incentives for student performance on district-wide tests.

The principal and the counselor have also made several home visits with the help of other bilingual staff. This effort to get to know families and involve parents in the learning of their children is really making a difference and helping them to feel comfortable at the school. This year, the school has also begun Saturday camps as an opportunity for extended learning for the students, but also to provide services to families and a time to all come together.

Williams states that the change is palpable. There is much less conflict among the adults than there had been the previous year. The student atmosphere is much more calm, focused, and positive. There are far fewer referrals. Substitutes that worked at the school in previous years continually comment on the improvement. Parents are more engaged, involved and happy that they are not only being called about referrals. The community is engaged in the work of the school.

While it can often get overlooked in the long list of important things needed to turn a school around, school culture can often be the foundation for all of the other important work. What are some specific examples you have seen of the importance of focusing on school culture? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the author

Heather Mattson

Heather Mattson is a Senior Research Associate at WestEd and a staff member of the Center on School Turnaround. In addition to coordinating the Journeys content team, she is a Journeys school facilitator and a blog contributor.

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