Improving the climate and culture of a school is a primary goal of every principal. But it’s especially important to establish a solid link between the climate you want to create and the culture you continue to develop, says Paul Branagan, principal of Middleborough High School in Massachusetts.

“The calibration of the link between school culture and climate was essential to finding our entry point to what we hoped to create at our school,” Branagan says. “Our school has a great sense of pride. However, there was an essential ingredient missing, which called for the involvement of my entire faculty and buy-in from the students. I had no idea that the buy-in would be so significant—but it completely changed the culture of the school.”

Branagan felt the connection was the missing ingredient, so he launched FinishSTRONG in the fall of 2012 during a formal presentation to the faculty. “It was at this launch that our school community and its connection to each other changed for the better—and has only gotten stronger,” he notes.

Branagan learned of a similar program from a workshop presented by Terri Johnson, executive director of the Missouri Association of Student Councils. “At the conclusion of her workshop … I knew this was the missing link for our school,” Branagan says. “With permission, I brought it to Middleborough. The basics of the program were embedded at first. However, the engagement of the program from the entire school community was beyond my wildest dreams.”

Backbone of Student Life Programs

The program has become the foundation of what the school is all about. “STRONG,” he explains, “is paramount to everything we do at the high school. It is the core of academic, civic, and social expectations that are woven throughout our school. This word has become the backbone of our student life programs, which is where we have seen the largest impact.”

The program has numerous components, which all serve to advance the mission of FinishSTRONG, including:

StudentSTRONG: This monthly recognition program allows teachers to nominate a student who has shown academic strength in their classes. Each month, the school hosts a recognition ceremony and prominently displays photos of the students. This program is very popular with staff, and the students really enjoy it.

NBA Club: The “Nothing But A’s” club is celebrated each semester (January and June). All deserving students are formally inducted into the NBA Club and receive the very prestigious NBA Club sticker, which is proudly displayed on their laptops for all to see.

College Signing Day: The school hosts an annual College Signing Day for all seniors heading off to their next chapter in life. They create the feel of a formal college signing ceremony, with students’ photos and intended major/pathway prominently displayed in the main lobby.

FutureSTRONG: The FutureSTRONG program has two elements, the first of which is the “Career Exploration Track,” where a different career is highlighted each week. “We provide students with statistics and information about different careers and the qualifications needed to achieve that career goal. Each Friday, we host a career specialist through our program called ‘Future Fridays,’” Branagan explains. The career specialist visits and connects with interested students during the lunch block of the day.

The second piece of this program is the FutureSTRONG Map. “We have a huge map of the United States displayed in our main lobby. We place stickers around the map of where our students have been accepted to college. This display has shown that the possibilities are endless,” Branagan says.

Wall of Honor: Under this program, students entering military service have a special wall dedicated to their pathway. “We host a ceremony on Flag Day and work with our local veterans association to honor our graduating seniors who’ve chosen to serve our country. Their graduation photos hang with their graduation photo from boot camp proudly in our main foyer,” Branagan says.

Alumni College Fair: The school hosts a large college fair the day before holiday break in December. Alumni from Middleborough High School are invited to come back and represent their college, university, or branch of military service to share their experience with current students. “This program is quite popular. On average, we will have well over 50 colleges and universities represented. Our alumni are charged with working with their respective university or college to bring literature with them to the fair,” Branagan explains.

StaffSTRONG: Each month, the student body selects one member of the staff who has exemplified the meaning of strength and commitment in the school. Their photo is taken and showcased in the front lobby.

SachemSTRONG: “This is our mantra as a school,” Branagan says. “The Sachem is our school mascot and was a very historic Native American figure that can be traced to the origins of the town in the mid-1600s. The Middleborough Sachems are a very proud name in our community. The concept of SachemSTRONG is branded in all aspects of our athletic programs and student life activities.”

A Transformative Program

The culture and climate of the school has been transformed as a result of the program. “You see social media hashtags referring to the term ‘strong’ from our student life programs. Parents/guardians refer to the energy and school pride as ‘SachemSTRONG.’ Our student body has increased their level of risk-taking within their academic studies,” Branagan says. In the school of about 725 students, close to 300 students are engaged in AP programming, and Middleborough High School will launch its 16th AP course this fall. “Our dropout rate decreased to less than 1 percent, which has been a major achievement for our school,” he says.

The school has involved Jostens Renaissance Education, an NASSP partner, which works with schools across the country to help improve school culture and climate. It has made a major contribution to the success of the program, Branagan says. “Our Jostens representative has been very supportive of our work and works to find ways to engage our students even more with the Jostens Renaissance Program.”

The bottom line? “Our students and families have engaged with our school community,” Branagan says. “The results can be seen in the increase in numbers at all levels of our programming.”

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.

Sidebar: Mottos and Rituals

As part of the FinishSTRONG Program, Middleborough High School kicks off the year with a presentation to each class highlighting the new start. Each class has a motto that they live by for the year:

  • StartSTRONG—Freshmen (class color—green)
  • BeSTRONG—Sophomores (class color—red)
  • StaySTRONG—Juniors (class color—blue)
  • FinishSTRONG—Seniors (class color—orange)
  • StaffSTRONG—Faculty/Staff (color—black)
  • FamilySTRONG—Parents/Guardians (color—yellow)

On the first day of school, all members of the school community receive a T-shirt in their designated color with their motto displayed. “As a school community,” Principal Paul Branagan explains, “we wear our shirts on Thursday to help celebrate our ability to finish each and every week strong.” Each class/group has a banner reflected in their color that is signed by all members of the school community showing their commitment to working hard and finishing the school year strong. Each year, seniors receive a pin with their motto to display on their graduation gowns. They also display their four class colors on their gowns along with their pins.

Sidebar: How FinishSTRONG Is Structured

Formally, Principal Paul Branagan of Middleborough High School is in charge of the FinishSTRONG program. However, a committee that includes a collective voice of teachers and counselors meets monthly to monitor the progress of the program. There are three subcommittees within that group:

  • Recognition Committee: Finds ways to celebrate students and their achievements both academically and socially
  • Attendance Committee: Reviews attendance patterns within the school community and plans celebrations for perfect attendance and students who have turned their truancy around
  • Graduation Committee: Helps plan the graduation program for seniors