At Carmen Northwest High School (CNHS), a majority of students are from low-income homes in Milwaukee’s central city, where access to a challenging college preparatory education has been limited. When our public charter school opened its doors in fall 2013, we set out to demonstrate that any child from any neighborhood in Milwaukee could succeed in a college preparatory environment, exhibit excellent character, and go on to achieve college and career success.

To help students grow socially, emotionally, and intellectually, we integrate character education into every aspect of campus life. The CNHS culture revolves around eight character traits that are embedded in our academic, extracurricular, and advisory programs: social intelligence, teamwork, determination, curiosity, self-control, gratitude, zest, and integrity.

By combining a rigorous academic program with a schoolwide focus on character education, CNHS has quickly become a high-impact, high-achieving urban school. In 2017, 100 percent of our graduates were accepted to college.

Consider exploring practices we have implemented to create a positive, productive culture that gets results.

1. Collect and analyze school culture data. A strong school culture is essential for academic growth. In a positive culture, students feel engaged and invested in their learning, and connected to their peers and teachers. When students feel unsupported, they disengage and attendance, behavioral, and academic problems arise.

As we prepared for our school’s opening, we wanted to make it easy for teachers to manage student behavior, discipline, and interventions. We looked at a few different systems and chose a web-based school culture system called Kickboard.

Our discipline policy is complex, so we used the school culture system to set schoolwide behavior expectations to help teachers keep students on task. With just a tap, teachers can record and reinforce the behaviors and character traits that make up our ideal culture. When a teacher marks a behavior for a student or group of students, the system automatically assigns merits or demerits. For example, positive behaviors, such as showing determination or curiosity, will earn a merit, while negative behaviors, such as chewing gum or using a cellphone in class, will earn a demerit. We use this system daily to track all the behavior choices students are making, whether they are positive or negative.

In the ninth and 10th grades, if students receive demerits, they can earn merits back when they make good decisions. This shows them that even if they make a mistake, they can bounce back by doing the right thing. Our upperclassmen also receive merits for demonstrating our character traits, but they do not have a point value, so they cannot be used to erase demerits. By junior or senior year, we expect students to demonstrate positive character traits because that is what leaders and self-directed learners do. Their motivation is intrinsic.

2. Track positivity ratios. We expect teachers to recognize positive student behaviors throughout the day at a ratio of at least 3:1. Every day, we look up the ratio of positive to negative behaviors to see if teachers and students are meeting school expectations. We send this ratio to staff midday to show them if we are hitting that 3:1 benchmark and having a great day, or if we are recognizing more negative than positive behaviors and need to shift our focus.

3. Check in with students daily. As freshmen, all students are assigned to an advisory—a single-gender group of about 15 students led by an adviser who remains with them all four years. Each advisory meets 30 minutes a day to discuss academics, culture, behavior, and other topics. In the meetings, students learn about our school character traits and engage in activities to demonstrate these traits. The adviser also looks at their merits and demerits to acknowledge the good choices students make, discuss issues, and provide encouragement.

4. Maintain objectivity. When addressing student behaviors, maintaining objectivity is critical. This is particularly important at the high-school level, where students often feel victimized. So, when a student says, “This teacher is treating me unfairly,” we can dig into the data and make our own determination.

Within our school culture system, teachers can add comments about a student’s behavior, so we’ve trained them in how to write comments that are judgment-free. For example, instead of saying, “This student was disrespectful,” they will write exactly what the student said or did. Then, when we meet with the student or parent, we can pull up the information and it is all there verbatim. The behavior speaks for itself. Once students acknowledge the choices they’ve made, they can take responsibility and make a plan to improve.

5. Act on the data. We also make it a priority to look at data to identify trends and needs from the individual to the school level. Using student reports, for example, we can see a student’s behavior and contribution to our culture over any period of time. If a student is troublesome, teachers can look at the data and see what kind of morning the student is having. Then they can greet the student and say, “Hey, I know you had a rough first and second hour, but this is third hour, and it’s a fresh start.” They can provide the pep talk students need to turn things around.

Each week, we send a Character Report to every teacher. The report provides an analysis of every behavior, such as which behaviors occurred the most or least, or which students saw an increase or decrease in merits. Each Monday at assembly, we show that data to students, too, so they can celebrate their successes and set goals for the week.

To motivate students, we hold competitions among the advisory groups. If, for example, we are trying to reduce “play fighting” and increase “teamwork,” we can take the number of merits each group earned that week for “teamwork” and subtract the number of demerits they received for “play fighting.” The group with the highest total of remaining merits wins the competition and can wear their spirit wear (e.g., a CNHS T-shirt) and jeans instead of their school uniform on Friday.

Each quarter, we also use data to identify which students need Tier 2 interventions in our Response to Intervention framework, and which behaviors to target. Having our behavior intervention plans in the same system we use to track students’ behavior data makes it easier to see what is working and what is not, so we can adjust our interventions accordingly.

6. Create a strong foundation for academic achievement. Thanks to our focus on positive behaviors and our school’s eight character traits, we have seen a reduction in almost every negative behavior. From 2014–15 to 2015–16, we reduced suspensions by 36 percent and increased student retention by 23 percent. From 2015–16 to 2016–17, students earned 53 percent more merits. In addition, there was a 37 percent decrease in the number of student removals from the classroom due to discipline infractions.

All of this is having an impact on academic achievement. Among the 165 high schools in Milwaukee Public Schools, CNHS was one of only six to earn a designation of “Meets Expectations” or higher on the Wisconsin state report card in 2016.

At first, we wondered if our students would actually care about things like character traits, but we quickly learned that they do. When they make a mistake and see demerits, it makes them want to show positive character traits and improve. Being able to clearly show students this data has helped them buy into our character traits, which are the most important part of our culture. It has helped these traits become intrinsic, which will benefit them in college, careers, and daily life. Each day, students want to do better—and they do.

Liz Hein is the dean of students and culture at Carmen High School of Science and Technology–Northwest Campus, which is part of Milwaukee Public Schools and the Schools That Can network.