How do you have your best year ever? It starts with your plan. For years we planned random events, “shot from the hip”, and “put out the fires closes to the hut”. It was not until we developed a strategic and intentional plan with a positive school culture being the focus, that we began experiencing the results for which we were aiming. It is easy to be reactionary when dealing with student achievement, data, attendance, school discipline, school safety, etc. all at the same time. Having a plan in place, with identified goals, for building a positive school culture keeps you focused on your priorities and minimizes the risk of operating in crisis mode and planning activities and events just for the sake of having them. Our goal is for every student to experience a sense of belonging and to enjoy school so much that they don’t want to stay home all while improving attendance, behavior, and course performance.
Since our school is somewhat unique, a 9th grade academy, and we only have our students for one school year (180 days), we have to make every single day count. We don’t get do-overs so we have to plan and be purposeful in all that we do. According to Matthey Lynch (2018), students from poverty are 2.4 times more likely to drop out of school than middle-income kids. Almost 60% of our students come from poverty so, we have to plan with purpose, lead with purpose and teach with purpose.
In their article, Keeping Students on Track to Graduate: A Synthesis of School Dropout Trends, Prevention, and Intervention Initiatives (2016), Ecker-Lyster and Niileksela report that low attendance during a student’s first 30 days of their 9th grade year is a stronger indicator that a student will drop out than any other 8th grade predictor – including test score and grades.
We believe if you want to improve anything at your school (student achievement, safety discipline, attendance, morale, parent involvement, etc.) it starts with your culture. Many ask what is the difference between school climate and school culture. School climate is what the weather looks like today – school culture is what it looks like overall.
We want to create a school where students want to beat down the door to get in. It is the highest compliment when a former student says, “I wish I could come back to the 9th Grade Academy” or “9th grade was my best year of school ever.” Creating a school culture where students thrive, perform to their highest potential, and enjoy coming to school IS attainable. This has been our focus for the last five years and we are seeing tremendous results.
Our College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), Georgia’s system of accountability, has increased by over 16 points (from 71.8 in 2015 to 87 in 2018 on a 100 point scale) and our student and staff attendance have improved exponentially. In addition, for the last three years, 100% of our 9th grade students have earned the required number of credits to be sophomores and 98% earned credit in all four core academic subjects. I recently heard Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas, say that if you want normal results, do normal things. If you want extraordinary results, you have to do the extraordinary. These results are almost unheard of in high school. Believe me when I say these results are not normal. It has nothing to do with my leadership knowledge. It is because we have developed an extraordinary plan for creating and implementing a school culture of success that includes our faculty, support staff, students, community members, and administrative team. It is beyond amazing to be a part of this team!
If you want to experience your best school year ever, start with developing a cohesive plan for improving your school culture. At first glance, this may seem overwhelming and you may want to start off small, but the most important thing is to get started. Our plan has undergone many revisions, and it just keeps getting better as time goes on. At first, we started with a House System that you can read about in a previous blog. Once we had a system in place we spent time reflecting on what went right and what needed to be improved. We sought input from students and staff and reviewed data and found that two key improvements needed to be made. First, a student leadership team was needed to improve our House System. These student leaders participated in leadership training, planned and led House activities, and became the voice for our students. Our student leaders added value, excitement, and energy to our already great culture. Second, that both teachers and students desired more House meetings so they could build relationships outside of the classroom and students could become more familiar with their “housemates”.
Our House system includes every student and staff member, student and staff leaders, a yearlong competition among the houses, monthly attendance challenges, a framework for teaching soft skills and our #RaiderRegs (our expectations for behavior), community service, career exploration, book studies, and so much more. It begins over the summer when every student receives a letter telling them which House they belong to. Then on the first day of school they experience a first day of school like no other first day of school they have ever experienced before. They are greeted with smiling faces, given a free House t-shirt, they learn about our House system in their first Teacher as Advisor meeting, attend a House meeting where they experience team building and bonding at its finest, and experience their first ever Battle of the Houses. It is a memorable day of fun and excitement. The goal for the first day of school is for every student to be beyond excited about wanting to come back for day two and every day for the entire school year.
It doesn’t matter how many years we have been school administrators, how many years we have had the House System, or anything else – there is always room for improvement. The best way to do this is through honest reflection. Our House system has gone through many revisions and each year it gets better and our students and teachers get more engaged. We are constantly asking ourselves, staff members, and students the following questions: What went right? What went wrong? And, what are our next steps? Everything we have tried hasn’t worked perfectly, and that is okay, we keep trying and keep improving. Our biggest asset is a faculty that truly love our students, understand the importance of our students’ freshman year of high school, and who have bought in to our House system.
We are always working on improving our school, its’ culture and the outcomes for our students by developing strategic and intentional plans. With that in mind, I would like you to ask yourself, do you really want to have your best year ever? If you do, begin by developing a plan that includes specific goals (and remember, it is okay to start small), get your teachers on board, and begin with the 1st day of school (make it an extraordinary day)! Finally, expect great results.
If you would like to schedule a school visit to see our positive school culture in action or schedule a consultation with our administrative team please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to be a part of helping you make your school culture EXTRAordinary.
This blog was written by Dr. Connie Franklin. Dr. Franklin has over 20 years in education with 15 years as a school administrator at the middle school and high school levels. Before moving into administration, Dr. Franklin taught business education and was an instructional technology specialist.