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How to Cultivate Your School's Character & Culture

Erika Samuels

Erika Samuels is a Research Associate at ExpandED Schools. 

School culture, which may sometimes be referred to as “climate” or “environment,” refers to the learning environment that influences the academic, social and emotional growth of all students. A large body of research has examined the relationship between school culture and student achievement, and a positive, supportive culture is recognized as an important target for improving behavioral and academic outcomes for students.

Establishing a positive school culture is a large undertaking; norms, values, beliefs, traditions and rituals are built over time, and changing a school’s “persona” may require a fundamental shift in perspective for some educators. However, given the impact that a positive culture can have on student outcomes, we are always trying to identify concrete steps that schools can take to alter it.

MS 223 Step Team
MS 223/The Laboratory School of Finance & Technology's step team gathers for a group cheer. 


Promote academic mindsets

One way to improve school culture is to foster positive academic mindsets, or encourage students to value and identify with the academic community. Setting high expectations (and providing academic supports to meet them) makes achievement seem attainable, which can motivate students to engage and persist in their work. Additionally, discussion of topics that are relevant to students’ everyday lives can engage and empower students by recognizing the value of their lived experiences. For example, The Research Alliance for New York City recently released a report that described a “culturally responsive education” (CRE) designed to improve college and career readiness for black and Latino male students. The initiative included discussion of local current events (like the death of Eric Garner and the “Central Park Five” case), selection of texts featuring male protagonists of color, and the display of names and images of black scientists around the school. Both setting rigorous academic norms (with supports) and offering relevant curricula can increase a student’s sense of belonging and connectedness with the school.

Establish positive discipline practices

Another component of school culture is the maintenance of a safe and orderly environment. The implementation of positive discipline practices to resolve conflicts (as opposed to authoritative and punitive practices like suspension) can reduce behavioral problems and classroom disruptions. One of our expanded learning schools, Frederick Douglass Academy V., explicitly teaches positive behaviors and rewards students that exhibit these behaviors with a “scholar of excellence” title and an incentive, like a cruise around the Statue of Liberty. “Restorative” approaches to discipline - or focusing on respectful relationships and cohesive community – can address why students misbehaved and identify needed supports. These positive discipline practices not only help students build and understand relationships, but also empower them to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their peers.

Foster strong relationships

Intentional relationship building helps establish behavioral norms, and these partnerships strengthen a shared culture. Mentoring, advisory and brother/sisterhood groups provide students with opportunities to build positive relationships with each other and staff. Relationships should also be fostered on a larger scale, outside of the school, with families and communities. In fact, “a culture of partnership” was recently cited by our external evaluator as one of the key components in establishing an environment that can sustain an expanded school day.

Investing in culture is worthwhile and sustainable; systemic policy and attitude changes can far outlast specialized staff or funding. However, school culture is only one part of the equation in affecting student performance. A positive and supportive environment sets the scene, but we still need teachers and other educators to do what they do best: provide high quality instruction. When student and school mindsets are aligned, and quality instruction and supports are provided, success is attainable for all students. 



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