When I first arrived, Lake Shore Middle School (LSMS) was on the verge of a state takeover. With an F grade for two straight years on the state report card, LSMS was plagued with a host of problems including discipline issues, an unclear academic focus, a discouraged staff, and students who had embraced a failing attitude. Where was I to begin, and how was I going to turn this school around?
Knowing how to establish a positive school culture can be tough, and the pathway is not always clear. How do administrators prioritize the needs of their school’s culture, especially when so many issues need to be addressed?
I knew that the key to turning this school around was to make a dramatic cultural shift. From my past experience with leading two other middle schools and a high school, I devised an approach to usher in these necessary changes, which I called “Know It, Feel It, Live It.” Here’s how it worked:
My first order of business was to know where the culture currently stood. While the data about low test scores, academic performance, discipline rates, and poor attendance told me a story about normalized failure, I needed to discover the roots of these problems.
I started off the school year with fireside chats. Every employee had an opportunity to share his or her top concerns for our school. Good or bad, I needed to know. Creating a positive school culture depended on my ability to give team members a chance to share without the fear of reprisal. More importantly, I wanted to accurately identify the needs of the team. We didn’t have time to chase after false negatives. As Yogi Berra said, “Before you build a better mousetrap, it helps to know if there are any mice out there.”
In addition, I spoke directly with the community and listened to their ideas about the school. Parents, community members, and students shared their concerns about the academic programming, instructional practices, extracurriculars, and more. Their perspectives gave me additional knowledge about the current state of affairs, which helped me develop ways to turn this school around.
I don’t believe in failure. I believe that everyone has an opportunity to succeed if they put their minds to it. What I needed to do was to get the school community to believe in themselves again and feel hopeful about the future.
To cultivate this attitude, it was easiest to start with students. At the beginning of each school day, students recited this pledge I created:
As I work toward achieving excellence, I will count on my community to be patient, be supportive, and to hold me accountable. I realize that my success depends on me. To that end, my ability to learn, behave well, and respect authority is reflected in the investment I make in myself. My hard work and positive attitude tell me one thing: I am a winner! Failure is not an option.
Reciting this pledge daily invoked a new spirit of accomplishment for students and convinced them that success was possible. Additionally, hearing our students recite the pledge served as a reminder to my team that we were on a mission that required our undivided attention.
To revitalize our team of teachers, I worked with them in the spirit of servant leadership and avoided forcing change upon them through top-down initiatives. The teachers needed encouragement, training, and support. We worked together to establish common expectations for the team and committed to them. This collaboration encouraged buy-in and instilled optimism in our teachers once again. Team members came to work earlier and stayed longer, not because it was required, but because they identified with the work, with the team, and with the culture. This team wanted to win.
Creating a positive school culture is a work in practice. You, as the school leader, must be the example of what a positive culture looks like. Opportunities to live my positive school culture was, and is, my perpetual goal. I started each day by greeting students and staff by name in the lobby. I spent time “thanking my way” around the building. I made myself accessible to students and parents through home visits, church attendance, and Saturday morning basketball games. This wasn’t just about being friendly or showing gratitude. Each of these instances was an opportunity to develop relationships and to take our school culture’s temperature.
The school community also rose to this challenge and found ways to embrace positive culture.Teachers started to spend more time both inside and outside of their classrooms building important relationships with students. They treated students holistically and with esteem, and as a result, students began to view their teachers as mentors who could help them achieve in the classroom. Students lived this positive culture, too, and started showing more respect for one another.
One Year Later
I am proud to report that in just one year, LSMS went from a failing school to the most improved school in Palm Beach County. Our state report card rose to a C, suspensions were cut in half, and parents who had previously removed their kids from the school had enrolled again.
Change can and does occur quickly when principals lead the way. What are your experiences with bringing positive change and building school culture?
Anthony Lockhart, EdD, is the former principal of Lake Shore Middle School in Belle Glade, FL. Currently, he is the director of School Transformation and Federal/State Programs for the School District of Palm Beach County. Dr. Lockhart was the 2017 Florida Principal of the Year.