Payson High School, Part 1: Building a Positive Culture of School Pride and Enthusiasm for Learning

Guest post by Jeff Simon

Indiana Jones was my hero growing up—I wanted to be just like him. And now, as high school administrator, I get to do that every day, because not only did Indiana Jones study culture, he taught it to inquisitive minds and instilled passion in curious students to become lifelong learners.

Principals know that as the culture goes, so does the school. From Day 1, our administrative goal at Payson High School has been to build a culture that focuses on pride in our school and enthusiasm for learning.

Cultivating School Pride

Our first goal was to develop school pride among students. Since our district covers a wide geographic area with students traveling long distances to and from campus, we knew that one of the first steps to accomplishing this would need to be carving out time for healthy, positive on-campus activities. To give students this time, we changed our two 45-minute lunch periods into a one-hour block.

The one-hour lunch block gives our clubs, athletic teams, and activity teams the opportunity to hold full membership meetings to plan and host events. Sponsors work with their own groups to build leadership capacity among their students and promote positive events that align with the scope of the club. As a result of this designated time, club participation has increased, and several new activities have started. There is a general excitement among participants who are playing more active roles in shaping their school community.

Igniting a Passion for Learning

Our next step in building a positive school culture was to cultivate an enthusiasm for learning by leveraging activities beyond the traditional schedule and curriculum. We created two STEAM learning labs that provide students with hands-on exploratory experiences where they can discover and learn through direct application of an idea.

University students at a tech college working on robotic drones as part of their science project.

The MakerSpace Learning Lab lets students play with and learn about new digital technologies such as 3D printers, 3D pens, Tinkercad design tools, the Code Academy program, and Sphero’s robotic and connected play, and it also includes an assortment of physical tools and building supplies. In a reconfigured section of our library, students now have a dedicated space to design online games with Chromebooks, build solar-powered motors together in the collaboration area, create futuristic masks and Pokemon figures in the printing shop, and operate flight simulators in the green-screen room.

If these technologies and tools aren’t enough to motivate students, we further inspire students with MakerSpace challenges. We pose a real-world problem or question that allows students to research ideas, develop solutions, and create a final product to defend their answer. Then, within our student recognition programs, the participating students are recognized for their work in solving the problem. The wide range of opportunities to work with innovative technologies in MakerSpace has inspired many of our students to explore and discover new ideas.


The Aquaculture Lab is another dynamic environment helping our students expand their learning horizons. Through gracious donations received from our local Mogollon Sporting Association, we purchased two large water tanks for students to raise 100 pounds of fish to stock in local ponds. In parallel, they are growing a garden that has the potential to continuously feed a family of four for a full year. Working in this lab has also led our students to make their own contacts with wildlife organizations, universities, and governmental agencies throughout our local community.

student-with-masksWhen the Aquaculture Lab was first introduced, we anticipated it would be a hit with our Ag students, but once the work began, we started seeing additional connections developing. Now everyone is benefiting from cross-curricular lessons involving agriculture and engineering, chemistry, algebra, geometry, physics, biology, career and technical education, and even our government classes. These lessons have really captured our students’ imaginations by bringing two subjects together and providing a real, hands-on application of their learning goals.


As a leadership team, we knew that while it would probably take three to five years to fully implement program adjustments, creating a positive culture is the real key to sustaining that change over time. We started to see the culture shift as soon as we took the simple step of creating the one-hour lunch block. Now that we have a solid baseline where time has been created to implement positive activities, we expect to see continued growth and momentum in creating a true sense of community pride on campus and all of the educational benefits that come with it.

How do you promote positive culture in your school? What could your school do if more time was created during the day?


Jeff Simon is the assistant principal of Payson High School in Payson, AZ, which serves 784 students in grades 9–12. He is the 2016 Arizona Assistant Principal of the Year.


  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great post, Jeff! At our school, students have the option of combining their lunch with an activity like Student Council but only a handful of students do it. Did you meet any resistance to this idea from staff or students? I only see this as a win-win for everyone, so I’d be curious to hear if anyone raised issues about the switch.

  • Jeff Simon says:


    Thanks for the comment! To answer your question, our school has been very traditional and has operated along very specific set of guidelines. So what we faced was more along the lines of “what if’s” because of not knowing or having experienced something like this in the past. When we communicated all of the possibilities that the hour lunch would offer, it was easy to get everybody on board. One logistical aspect that made us work was the contract we had with our meal provider for our student lunches. The worry was that we would have fewer students eating in the cafeteria and our lunch count would decrease. What we found, even though we have an open campus for 10th-12th, was that more lunches were being sold and more students were sticking around to take advantage of the on campus opportunities.

    In fact, this week we will be hosting a BBQ/ pep rally for students and faculty during the lunch hour. Our PHS Marching Band will play, Student Government and Cheerleaders will host the pep rally, PHS Clubs will put on different games, Link Crew will work to get freshmen involved and Administration will be cooking! It looks to be a fun day and we won’t lose any educational time!

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