Relevance, authenticity, agency key to school culture buy-in
Vestavia Hills High School (Alabama) leadership teacher Kym Prewitt and Vestavia Hills City Schools Whit McGhee shared in a recent webinar, titled "Build a Positive School Culture with a Student-Run App," what they learned when looking to students to lead on strengthening positive school culture, eSchool News reports.
Since administrators cannot change the culture from the top down, having students lead the way and take ownership of school culture is key. When given the chance to connect, a place to meet, and the opportunity to make their own connections, they focused on core issues of kindness and acceptance and created a welcoming culture.
The second and third lessons learned by the administrators were that tech helps students connect — the students built an app for their peers to use, but they still wanted teachers to be in charge of it so it would continue to function even after they graduated. They also opted for a soft-launch before advertising the app to the entire student body.
School culture is important, but it can be difficult for administrators to control. Culture can impact student attendance, learning and test scores. It can even affect teacher retention. Once created, a culture is difficult to change since it's reflective of student and educator attitudes. Administrators can create a plan for change, but it ultimately has to have buy-in from the school community.
Students are capable, however, and can do amazing things when given the opportunity and support. When given the chance to work on and create these changes, students are learning social-emotional skills like problem-solving and collaboration.
Also key to these efforts is authenticity from administrators. Those wanting to change culture can start by interacting with students in relatable ways. Hamish Brewer, principal of Fred Lynn Middle School in Virginia, creates a welcoming culture by skateboarding down school halls that are adorned with positive-message graffiti murals — but the key to his approach is that it's authentic to who he is, because students know when something is or isn't a gimmick.
Positive school culture is also crucial to help retain teachers. In one instance, an Indianapolis school implemented an initiative called Opportunity Culture that pays excellent teachers to serve as multi-classroom leaders who mentor other teachers. The improvements from that program resulted in a 97% first-year teacher retention rate.