Six years ago, our middle level/high school in rural Idaho was facing the same problems as many rural schools throughout the United States. Shifts in the local economy and an increase in the number of transient students attending schools in neighboring districts had dropped our high school enrollment to below 50 students, raising concerns about its future viability. We knew that our district had many positive attributes that it could build on.

A Six-Year Journey to Lasting Change

In 2014, I was hired as the principal of Murtaugh Middle/High School in Murtaugh, Idaho. I had a strong understanding of the culture of the school and community because I had served as a classroom teacher in the district for six years prior to being hired as principal. I felt the district had a lot of positives that we could build upon, including a strong superintendent, a supportive school board, engaged and supportive parents, an array of technological resources, and a strong staff. 

I reflected on what goals I wanted to accomplish as a new building administrator, and my primary goal was to work intentionally to create an environment that promoted academic excellence and a culture of student achievement. I felt confident we had the pieces in place to achieve this. Our small size was advantageous because it meant we were nimble and could easily adjust our programs and focus and would see dramatic changes even with small scope projects. 

Fast forward to 2021, and our enrollment has doubled and we have become a magnet school in which over 20 percent of our student enrollment is out-of-district students who choose to attend Murtaugh because of our track record of academic success.  Here are some strategies that helped foster these shifts in our school’s culture.

Make Success Visible

One of the first things that I did was make appointments to spend time at neighboring schools that I considered high-achieving environments. I interviewed students, teachers, and administration to find some commonalities around what made their culture so successful. One common theme was that all of the schools that I visited made concentrated efforts to make success visible and to celebrate it publicly. 

I instantly began replicating this at Murtaugh. We created “Hall of Fame” walls to celebrate student success wherever we could. We hung up framed 8”x10” pictures of recent valedictorians and salutatorians in the high school hallway and included empty frames advertising spots for upcoming classes. Each fall, we hang pictures of our senior class holding pennants of the colleges they applied to in our school commons area. We have created a standardized test record board in our testing lab that tracks our school’s high scores. We also created a four-year three-sport Hall of Fame wall in the entrance of our gyms and printed a large banner celebrating all of our academic state champion athletic teams to hang in our gym rafters. We host a formal academic awards assembly during the day at the end of the school year to visibly celebrate student achievements. These and other initiatives have contributed to changing the mindset to an intentional celebration of academic success.  

Hire People Who Promote Your Vision

Most administrators understand the importance of hiring the right people to achieve your priorities. This is a critical component of creating a culture that fosters student achievement. However, it is often difficult in today’s educational climate to find quality candidates who support your vision and implement it with fidelity and enthusiasm. Be relentless in your search. Exhaust every avenue possible and try not to settle for someone who does not meet your standards. 

While you are building your culture, people tend to focus too much on the negatives. Change the conversation and direct the focus to positive attributes that you have to offer. Advertise the positives loud and often, and soon others will be repeating your message. As a leader, you control your district’s message! You are only one person and your reach can be limited, so you are going to need help implementing your message and vision. It is imperative that you hire people who share your vision and will implement it into the programs you offer. 

High-achieving people tend to gravitate toward highly functional environments. If you empower good employees with positive working conditions and enthusiastic colleagues, you will create an environment that advertises itself and soon applicants will be soliciting you for employment based on the reputation your school has developed.  

Identify and Connect With Your Mavens

While I was preparing to enter education leadership, I read Jim Collins’ book Good to Great in an attempt to better understand how to drive organizational change. Collins described how organizations create change by selling the ideas to a few key influencers that he calls “mavens.” The idea is that the mavens’ influence will create a trickle-down effect that will result in widespread institutional change. I found this concept to be especially applicable in the school setting, and while I try to maintain positive and supportive relationships with all students, I set an intentional goal of building stronger relationships with students who I felt fit this maven identity in the younger grades of my school. My thought was that if I could build strong relationships with them and sell them on our academic goals and vision, they would influence their peers and systematic change would start to occur. 

I spent a lot of time and energy developing strong relationships with these mavens, and eventually I was able to steer our conversations in the direction of academic and postsecondary goals. I became an academic cheerleader for these students and pushed them to step outside of their normal comfort zones and take academic risks to try and achieve more. I was fortunate that these students responded positively, and they did start to take new risks and achieved new successes. This gave them the confidence to continue to move forward and strive for more. 

As word spread about what these students were doing and achieving, we began to see the trickle-down effects take root in the school. More students began participating in these programs, and soon we had established a cultural identity. The new normal was a climate of participation in advanced opportunities and a focus on academic success. The pattern became self-sustaining because after the first group of mavens graduated, their friends and siblings who followed were raised under the influence of people who modeled behavior they wanted to emulate. 

Strategic Partnerships

Similar to how strategic hiring can change the culture of your building, strategic partnerships can make a significant impact on your ability to offer academic programs that allow students to meet their academic potential. Six years ago, we did not have many strategic partnerships and operated in somewhat of an isolated bubble. I was aggressive in working to change that in hopes of extending the opportunities that we could offer students despite our small size and limited resources. We found a partner in our local community college and worked together to ramp up the amount of dual-credit opportunities that we could offer students in person on our campus and through virtual learning. This focus became connected with our hiring practices, and we selected candidates who met the requirements to be dual-credit instructors. 

As our partnership progressed, we started graduating students who earned 20 or 30 college credits; some even left high school with associate degrees. This was great advertising to attract new students to our district. Our community college partner also benefited because as these students graduated with a high number of credits, many sought to complete their degree programs at the college. As this success continued to build, we were able to find more partners who helped fund programs, including a nursing program, entrepreneurship program, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) programs, and more. 

The addition of these programs continued to boost our community image and attracted families that wanted similar opportunities for their students. The education world is small in many ways, and these types of partnerships tend to have a snowball effect as you build momentum. 

A few intentional actions can create a major shift in the academic culture of a school. Take the time to create a vision of the environment that you hope to achieve and begin taking some intentional steps in that direction. You might be shocked at how fast momentum builds and how quickly you are able to create a lasting culture shift.  

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