There are several components to building a positive school culture and multiple ways to go about it. Building culture never stops and is always in development—here’s how our school got started on our journey to create a cohesive, positive, kind, and caring culture.

“The Sundevil Way”

Our principal took stock of the existing strengths of the campus, which included a teaching staff that is already very supportive of one another and kind and caring toward students. We already had students who were kind, but the question he asked himself was how we could leverage those strengths to
get better academic results and build a cohesive and positive school culture at the same time. We landed on the theme of “The Sundevil Way.” Everything that we would do would be tied to that theme.

Getting the Adults on Board

Our belief is that school leaders have to provide a “low entry point and an infinite ceiling” for adults in order for an idea or an initiative to grow legs. In other words, everyone has to be able to grasp the idea and do something with it, but our best teachers should be able to take an idea and run with it beyond what even we might imagine.

All of our teachers liked the idea of a school initiative that would assist with classroom management and provide a way to discuss behaviors and expectations as the school year started. The teachers who largely work with freshmen loved the idea as a way to introduce new students to the campus and the expectations of the school. Teachers who had been on the campus 20 years or more liked the idea of establishing a proud identity that honored the school’s past and storied history. In this way, the initiative gave everyone the “low entry point.”

We worked with the department chairs during the first couple of meetings of the school year to talk about how to implement the Sundevil Way and then took the plan to the teachers and paraprofessionals. In the first days back to work in August, we presented the theme to the teachers and support staff, then provided the time for them to discuss in smaller groups some ideas about what the next steps would be. Staff decided that every class on campus needed to have a discussion about what the Sundevil Way means, and that students would get to define it in classroom discussions across all disciplines during the first several weeks of the school year. With adult buy-in, our journey began.

Engaging Students

The activities director is tasked with guiding the student leadership, and he took the theme of the Sundevil Way to the student leaders after all of the teachers had discussions in their classrooms. The Associated Student Body decided to make an annual investment in purchasing a red t-shirt for every student, which would be distributed in third-period classes during the first two weeks of school. Student leadership would draft and select a new design each year.

The administration created “Sundevil Way Cards” on card stock with the school logo and school mantra, which were printed and cut inexpensively by the district publishing department. Each adult was given a small stack of these cards to write personal notes to any student at any time throughout the school year. The principal challenged each adult to hand cards out to two students of their choosing every week. We see students in classrooms and out on campus carrying their binders displaying their Sundevil Way Cards as a point of pride when they get one from a teacher or another staff member.

How do you build a positive culture at your school?

Katie Salo is in her 14th year of working as a high school assistant principal in the Poway Unified School District. She began her professional career as a social science teacher, and was named the 2019 California Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@AP_Katie_Salo).

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