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Develop a Culture of Empowerment
Interviews with teachers in profiled schools consistently demonstrated that individual staff members feel deeply committed and personally responsible for ensuring academic achievement for all students, but at the same time they attribute the school's success to the efforts of the whole community. High expectations and a no-excuses mind-set are demanded with urgency but without anxiety. Supports and resources, rather than threats, are provided to help staff meet high standards.
These magnet schools face an array of challenges: the devastating effects of poverty, under-resourced budgets, and children entering with below-grade-level skills. But staff appear to approach their work with a can-do attitude that reflects a deep respect for their students' capabilities and an underlying confidence in their own ability, individually and collectively, to educate them well. Combating the same forces that create toxic environments of helplessness and hopelessness in some schools— places where families, students, and neighborhoods are blamed for their own failures and deficiencies—these magnet school staff exude a sense of efficaciousness. Across the board at these schools, staff have a history of working together to deal with any obstacle, setting a tone that helps motivate students to achieve.
What isn't said reveals a lot about a school's culture.In these profiled schools, a visitor gets the impression that failure is not considered an option for any student-not for someone with a disability,not for someone who is homeless, not for someone who comes to school without speaking a word of English. The counselor at Raymond says that when a child is not performing well,teachers do not cast blame, saying, "It's not my fault, it's the third-grade teacher's fault" or "It's the mom and dad's fault." At Combs, the principal's message about her staff's responsibility for student achievement is crystal clear: "We make no excuses for children." These expectations are paired with a shared sense of pride in the school's progress toward meeting their mission.
How do leaders imbue their schools with this culture of empowerment? At the district level, firm adherence to a set of high expectations— what one superintendent calls "nonnegotiable principles"—seems to be paired with autonomy or, as he puts it, "giving people a lot of flexibility and ownership in what they do." This can mean granting school staff control of their budgets, curriculum, staffing, and general practices. At Normal Park, a previously low-performing school, when principal Levine was allowed to reconstitute the faculty, she saw it as the key to transforming a community with low morale and a self-fulfilling prophecy for failure into a collaborative team built on the concept of collective efficacy. Reconstituting the staff helped to turn around the culture, to focus on teacher responsibility for supporting student achievement rather than "sitting around and complaining" about all the factors that make it harder for students to learn, she says.
Along with autonomy comes a high performance bar that teachers at these schools appear to take seriously and find motivating. Providing teachers with professional respect, giving them the freedom and time, as FAIR principal Bennett says, "to try things they think will work," often translates into greater ownership for the school's collective goals around student achievement. Reflecting on the school culture at FAIR, one fourth-grade teacher remarks, "Here, the expectation is 'We are success' and that 'You're going to do it, and you're going to do it well.'"
Some curricula are inherently designed to promote positive school culture, replacing deficit models with the premise that all students can meet high expectations if you build on their existing strengths. As the Combs principal says about the school's leadership model, "The moment we started focusing on what children could do, rather than what they struggled with, great things began to happen." Through a process of individualized goal setting and data documentation, each student learns to draw on existing talents to overcome obstacles. One boy who had to be coaxed to talk one-on-one with people was eventually giving speeches to the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. A teacher had discovered his gift for memorization and helped him use that skill to gain confidence in public speaking.
The dual immersion approach at River Glen is driven by the belief that native-Spanish-speaking children are not deficient or "limited English proficient," as they are designated in many school districts, but, in fact, are "English language learners." Through their practice, these educators have shown that knowledge of the Spanish language is not an obstacle for their students, but, rather, an asset that can help children master two languages and navigate distinct cultures.
In all of the profiled schools, the school leaders see themselves as playing a critical role in promoting and cultivating the culture of efficacy. Visits across the sites and interviews with staff confirm that these principals lead by example, communicating an urgency about the need to meet the school's goals for student achievement without producing the fear or anxiety that so often can hinder performance. For example, Combs principal Summers is known to challenge staff, reminding them, as one teacher recalls, that "every single child deserves to leave every grade level prepared to go on to the next grade level, otherwise we have failed him." But rather than seeing Summers as exerting pressure or stress, teachers describe her as "motivational" and "inspirational."