Guest Blog Post: Thoughts on School Culture

THOUGHTS ON SCHOOL CULTURE

By Sherri VandenAkker, Ph. D.

Parent Co-Chair of the Joshua Eaton Task Force

Establishing a Firm Foundation for the Future

Since November, I have had the privilege of co-chairing the Joshua Eaton Task Force (TF) with Assistant Superintendent Craig Martin.  Comprised of parents, teachers, and administrators, the Task Force was established to bring the school community together to help address the school’s Level 3 accountability rating, and more importantly, I feel, to begin the process of helping the school move forward.  As we close out our work, I want to report on what we accomplished, as I see it, and on what I learned about school change and the importance of school culture in the change process.

In today’s educational climate, it can be difficult to define and “measure” success other than through standardized test scores.  The decline in test scores that led to our lowered accountability rating was the catalyst for taking stock at Joshua Eaton; and of course our community is intent on seeing our scores and rating rise.  But I feel that we are even more invested in improving the conditions that contributed to the decline–rather than resort to superficial measures to “fix” our numbers, we want to lay the foundation for genuine, sustainable, and continuous improvement.

I came to see that in order to do that, we needed to focus even more intently on how than on what—for it is the how (or the process) that ultimately will define the school’s success more strongly than the what (the specific actions that we decide to take).  If all sectors of our community—school leadership, teachers, parents, and of course the children– are able to collaborate authentically, respectfully, and thus effectively, we will be able to transform our school culture for the long-term.  I believe that our TF was successful in helping restore our school’s ability to collaborate, and thus I am proud of the work we did to establish a sound foundation for the school to move forward in accomplishing its emerging goals. In many ways, I feel that the dialogue and open exchanges of the group have modeled the type of culture our community values and is so essential for an effective school.

The Task Force’s Work

In late fall, the TF was given the following charge:

. . . to develop and oversee a comprehensive plan to elevate Joshua Eaton from the DESE’s Level 3 accountability rating and to continually move the school forward in a positive direction. This will include looking at all aspects of the school community, reviewing input from the DSAC [District and School Assistance Center] survey, providing additional avenues for community input, recommending specific and sustainable action steps to the School Advisory Council and/or Reading Public Schools administration, and establishing an effective means of communication among all school stakeholders.

As our charge indicates, our primary goal was to make ourselves obsolete by embedding our mission and purpose into the very culture of our school.

Here’s how we went about it.  In (nearly) weekly meetings from December through the end of March, we examined: data from the state-authored survey sent to parents across the district in October; input gathered at the World Café meeting held at Joshua Eaton in February; and input from students gathered during Open Circle time in March.   In our discussions, school personnel also shared their insights about factors related to the decline.

We discovered that there was no single cause for our school’s decline and thus there could be no “quick fix.” We saw that our school needs to progress in the areas of Teaching and Learning; School Culture; School Leadership; and School/Family Communication and Engagement.  Each of these areas is multi-faceted and complex; none could be “fixed” in one year.  Yet we are happy to report that meaningful work is underway on all of them—at Joshua Eaton and across the district.  Here are just a few highlights:

  • At the request of the TF, Assistant Superintendent Craig Martin authored a detailed report on the numerous (and impressive, in my view) measures underway to improve Teaching and Learning; they include establishing effective Professional Learning Communities across the district, examining curriculum pacing, studying our special education delivery, and revamping professional development delivery. (Click here for a summary report.)
  • Craig Martin also shared work with the TF that he has presented to educators across the nation, throughout the state, and in our district on building and sustaining healthy School Culture and effecting school change through research-supported methods.
  • Incoming principal Eric Sprung held two well-attended meet-and-greets to give our community a sense of his School Leadership style and hear what’s on our minds.
  • Sprung met with our current School Advisory Council (SAC)–comprised of teachers and elected parents–to discuss how he will empower next year’s group to provide School Leadership, in part by creating a strong School Improvement Plan.
  • Sprung promised to strengthen School/Family Communication about the ongoing “state of our school” by holding meetings for the Joshua Eaton community throughout the next academic year to keep us updated on progress.
  • TF member and communications specialist Kate Moran met with Superintendent Doherty on improving School/Family Communication across the district.
  • Under the direction of current co-chairs Principal Karen Feeney and parent Eileen Manning, this year’s SAC sent out a survey on School/Family Communication that will be used to set direction for next year.

Clearly the TF itself did not spearhead all, or even most, of these actions.  Many are the result of ongoing work being done across the district, and some resulted from the change in our school leadership.  But the TF was able to use data and information to verify that Joshua Eaton’s critical areas of need are being meaningfully addressed, and to ensure that our school will have strong structures in place next year—and beyond—to sustain and build upon the work already underway.

In our final TF meeting this past week, we formally handed over our responsibilities to our re-empowered SAC that will be co-chaired by Principal Sprung and a Joshua Eaton parent.  This group (comprised in much the same way as the TF) will establish goals and action steps for the year ahead, and monitor progress toward meeting them.

The Role of School Culture

The TF also realized that the actions we as a school undertake to improve school performance will succeed only if they are done within the context of a healthy school culture marked by mutual respect, authentic communication, and effective collaboration. We understood this from the outset, but the health of our school culture took on new importance in the spring when some unexpected developments occurred.  Principal Feeney announced that she was seeking a new position.  We also learned that our teaching staff will experience significant change: we’ll have three new teachers (two of our veteran teachers are retiring and we’re adding an additional teacher due to growth) and additional long-term substitutes for teachers going on leave.

As a result of these unexpected changes, the TF had to shift gears:  we needed to think less about what to do to reshape our existing school landscape and more about how to prepare to navigate a very different one.

While actions (including those listed in the bullets above) to address our challenges continued, our community undertook searches for a new principal and for three new teachers. As we know, the search for a principal did not yield a permanent replacement for Principal Feeney.  While that was disappointing, as conventional wisdom tells us, crisis can be transformed into opportunity. We are fortunate indeed that next year Joshua Eaton will be under the leadership of Eric Sprung, an experienced Reading Public Schools principal who will be “on loan” to us from Birch Meadow.  Having an experienced and successful “local” principal ready to lead our school (indeed, he is already a strong presence in it) rather than someone new who would need time to “ramp up” meant that the TF could hand over our responsibilities to our reinvigorated SAC and our School Leadership Team (comprised of the principal and teachers from every grade) much earlier than we had foreseen.  In my view, the TF has returned its work to where it rightfully belongs:  the structures embedded in our school.

These structures only work, however, if the culture in the school is strong.  The term “school culture” probably sounds nebulous to many of us, and to some degree it is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not real or important.  I came to believe that it’s both.

We readily accept the notion of “American culture.”  We might have trouble describing it beyond its superficial and stereotypical elements like burgers and blue jeans, but it’s “real,” runs deep, and is held dear.  I believe that the same can—and should—be true for our school’s culture.

In truth, I was initially skeptical that school culture is truly fundamental to school success, and thus unsure that the TF should devote so much energy to fostering it, so I did some research.  I learned that the business community readily accepts that creating and sustaining a strong culture is vital to success.  Management consultants Bain & Company report that 91% of senior executives they surveyed “agreed” with the statement that “culture is as important as strategy for business success.” Lou Gerstner, who is credited with turning around IBM, noted, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”  In fact, when I did a Google search for the three keywords “culture,” “business,” and “success,” I got nearly half a billion hits, and what I saw impressed me.

I also discovered that respected school change agents have much to say about the importance of school culture. Roland Barth notes that “A school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the president of the country, the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal, teachers, and parents can ever have.”  Michael Fullan argues that when turning around a school, “Reculturing is the name of the game. . . . Transforming culture–changing what people in the organization value and how they work together to accomplish it–leads to deep, lasting change.”  In fact, I discovered that there’s a lot of research indicating that when a school’s culture improves, its academic performance does too.

Through the TF’s work over the past several months, I developed several beliefs about school culture:

  • It’s created by everyone within the school community: administrators, teachers, staff, students, and families;
  • It can–and must–be set and nurtured intentionally;
  • When it’s left to happenstance, it will go awry and likely be difficult to repair.

I also learned that there are many reliable and identifiable indicators that a school has established a culture conducive to success.  These include:

  • Commonly held educational goals;
  • effective collaboration on setting and teaching the curriculum, and assessing learning;
  • clear, consistent, and high expectations;
  • productive two-way communication and genuine goodwill amongst all of the school’s constituencies;
  • genuine willingness to evaluate progress, admit mistakes, address problems, and start over; and
  • adept leadership to coordinate and guide the school’s work.

(If you’re interested in learning more, check out the short essay “Good Seeds Grow in Strong Cultures” by Jon Saphier and Michael King.).  Given this extensive (but not exhaustive) list, it’s easy to see why school culture deeply impacts learning.  And given that each indicator on the list is connected to every other, it’s also easy to see why it’s difficult but critical to create a healthy culture.  Clearly I became a “believer” in the importance of the TF’s work on rebuilding our school culture.

Looking Forward

Effective collaboration is the lifeblood of all of these elements of school—and it is also the key to success for the actions the TF, school, and district have been undertaking to improve Joshua Eaton and the RPS system.  I believe that through its actions and its honest but respectful dialogue between school personnel and parents, the TF has helped improve our community’s ability to collaborate and thus has helped “grow” our school community’s capacity.

It’s hard to “see” improved capacity in the early stages—it will become manifest in successful initiatives and improved learning next year and beyond.  But, for me, it has been easy to “feel” our improved capacity: the disappointment and frustration that I felt in the fall has been replaced by optimism and excitement for our school’s future, and I hope the same is true for others in our community.  I look forward to watching our collaboration unfold as we set and act on common goals for our children’s success in the next school year, and far beyond.

In closing, I want to thank Craig Martin, Principal Feeney, Principal Sprung, our teachers and staff at Joshua Eaton, our parents, and especially our children for working so hard this year to rebuild our community and to renew our school culture. Our collective strength is tremendous.

Thank you especially to the teachers and parents who served on the Task Force for their time, insights, energy, and honesty over the past several months—and thank you in advance to the School Advisory Council members (just recently announced) who will continue this important work.  Since our goal is continuous improvement, we know that the Task Force’s work is not finished—indeed, it never will be.  But we are confident that it will be continued in new and exciting ways.

 

— Sherri VandenAkker, Ph.D.

Joshua Eaton Task Force Parent Co-Chair

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