I had a good conversation with a friend tonight about schools and campus cultures and community perceptions. The kernel of our discussion was why students clamor to get into some schools and why they don’t get as excited about others. School choice is a big issue around my neck of the woods, and giving that choice has a raft of advantages, but it does mean that perceptions matter.
One idea we bandied around was that bell schedules drive decisions. It made sense as a valid argument; if a student could take more classes one place over another, or at times that were more convenient than another, the school that offered that would have an upper hand.
My friend’s take on the matter, however, was that those big decisions, that desire to be on a particular campus and part of that specific school’s community boiled down to one thing: school culture.
It’s hard to disagree; my more than two decades in public education have taught me that culture trumps programs. Every time.
But my experiences have also shown me that sometimes the perception of a school’s culture isn’t the same as what really happens on campus. I wrote about this (what seems a lifetime ago) when I was at a high school competing for the attention of prospective students, in a post titled “Perceptions”. I thought then, as I do now, that we have a responsibility for telling our school’s story.
Because a school is really a complex tapestry of stories, not only defined by the bold patterns of sports, arts, and clubs, but also rich in the subtler colors of those little acts of kindness and welcome, the moments in classrooms where the spark of learning blazes, and the times when kids and the adults on campus pick each other up when things are getting wobbly.
So as I talked with my friend tonight, I asked what she thought principals like me needed to do to bring our school culture to the families who were considering different schools. Her answer surprised me.
Be safe, she said.
And as we talked more about this, she pulled the trump card of education, the one point that I’ve never seen a counter to. She said: You have to think like a mom.
At any school, beyond the banners and beauty, past the academics and activities, more important than the polish or the programs, lurks the question: how will my daughter or son fit in?
Moms think about this. They wonder where their kids will eat lunch, what opportunities their unathletic daughter will have, where their shy son will have a chance to thrive.
Kids feel this too, and look around a school on those campus tours hoping to find comfort along with opportunity. They want to know that if they can’t sing a song or throw a ball, if during that first week they forget their PE lock combination or which classroom they have for math, if they’re not always the shiny penny, what happens to them?
And the truth is, shiny pennies have those same, justifiable, insecurities.
When parents ask me what they can do to prepare their sons and daughters for middle school over the summer, my response is brief and consistent: breathe. Reassure them. They’ll be fine academically, and they’ll find kindness and helpers when they arrive.
But it’s not as simple as that.
I think we make it possible for students to believe they’ll be supported and challenged and loved when we tell our school’s stories. We inspire comfort with every tweet and post that shows what happens every day on our campus. We help those who don’t yet know where they belong believe that they can find their passion every time we celebrate all aspects of our school, and let them know that there are lots of ways to be a part of our school community.
And we show ourselves to be safe when we put a priority on building a positive school culture, from the image of our mascot we present to the focus our student leaders bring to their work.
I’m proud to see some smiling cougars up on banners around campus as well as the (kind of creepy looking) image of our traditional mascot. I love that our ASB put on a Friendship Week this year that was so successful that we’re going to run two next year …as well as a Kindness Challenge, and slew of community building events.
And I believe that my responsibility is to talk about it. Blog about it. Tweet about it.
The first step is to purposefully build a school culture that cares, has a way every student can be part of the family, and is safe. The second step is to celebrate that to the world.