A school’s culture—positive or negative—stems from its vision and its established values. But whether the culture is strong or weak depends on the actions, traditions, symbols, ceremonies, and rituals that are closely aligned with that vision,” noted Craig D. Jerald in his issue brief, “School Culture: The Hidden Curriculum,” for The Center of Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement in 2006. At Western Branch Middle School (WBMS) in Chesapeake, VA, we take this description of school culture to heart. From the smallest of details with the appearance of the school to the celebrations enacted to honor our students and staff, WBMS regularly reflects on its practices to ensure that we have the most positive school culture for our students, staff, and parents.

Our Primary Clients

As educators, we all know that the students are the primary client that we ultimately serve. At WBMS, we use a business model to accomplish this goal. Research indicates that a satisfied customer will tell two or three people about their experience with a company. A dissatisfied consumer will share their lament with eight to 10 people, and some will push that number to 20. With that in mind, educators must balance creating a positive and nurturing classroom and school environment with simultaneously creating a challenging academic experience that helps students work toward their potential.

WBMS works to accomplish this expectation in several ways. For instance, we focus on developing an environment to hear the voice of students. This is accomplished by our Student Advisory Council, which is open to any of the 900 enrolled students. At these sessions, guiding questions are posed at grade-level meetings to hear the “experience” of being a Bruin—the school mascot—coupled with the expectation that we acknowledge our good practices while critically looking for ways to improve.

Student voice is also solicited through the Student Council Association, which plays a pivotal role in impacting school culture. Whether through the facilitation of Kindness Week, three pep rallies strategically scheduled throughout the year, or other school-spirit events (such as door- and locker-decorating contests), students in “Bruin Country” have a direct impact on our school culture. A final example of the importance we place on student voice is shown through our monthly Q&A town hall-style meetings during lunches. As Amanda Karhuse, director of advocacy for NASSP, explained in her article, “The Power of Student Voice Matters—Do You Listen?” we sponsor these monthly discussions for the dual purpose of providing information and feedback to students about school events and expectations, as well as to hear their concerns and answer questions.

In addition to actively soliciting student voice, the students remain our focus through numerous celebrations we hold on a weekly, monthly, or semester basis. I’ll focus on three of our most popular events.

First, each week we facilitate our Most Valuable Bruins awards. Each team of teachers selects one student who has demonstrated one of our four “R.O.A.R.” expectations (be Respectful, take Ownership, be Amiable, and be Responsible). Students who are selected have their names and nominations read during their respective grade-level lunches, receive an achievement certificate, and have their names posted on the main hallway and website. We also hold celebrations each marking period for students who have made the honor roll. Based on the feedback provided by students, we’ve crafted the celebrations to become more student-friendly—with better food and less adult talk, and offering more time with friends and listening to music on their electronic devices.

A third celebration that is arguably a favorite is our Bruin Inspiration awards. Each semester, teachers have the opportunity to recognize a student who has either overcome a significant challenge in life or has displayed exceptional character. Once it is determined which five students in school will receive the award, their families are invited to a faculty meeting where we recognize the students. Students are given a medallion for their accomplishment, and after they recognize their most inspirational teacher (from the current or previous years), all five students and their nominated teachers have a group picture taken. This picture is captioned with each person’s name, matted, and framed, and each semester the picture is hung on the main hallway alongside prior semesters’ honorees. It is one of the most emotional recognitions we hold each year.

Master Teachers Creating Masterpieces

The 2019–20 theme for WBMS was adopted from Thomas Gorman: Mission First, People Always. One of the key stakeholder groups is school faculty and staff. I often refer to this group as the “troops in the trenches,” as they are the primary group that influences student learning on a day-to-day basis; therefore, we should determine the best ways to positively affect this group.

For the past several years, WBMS has placed significant emphasis on three aspects of the faculty and staff. First, setting high expectations for performance is essential. Like most principals who are new to a building, I spent my first summer meeting with various teachers to learn about where they’d been professionally and where they wanted to go. During that summer, the administrative team, in collaboration with department chairs, established templates for lesson plans, syllabi, professional learning community minutes, and team minutes. Throughout the past six years, we’ve requested and received feedback from teachers to update these forms and make them beneficial for planning purposes, as well as maintain established high standards for staff.

A second area of focus for enhancing school culture with the teachers involved extensive and relevant professional development. We scheduled content-area training sessions three to four times per year, as well as five sessions on the citywide in-service day, all of which were guided by feedback from the staff. Some of the schoolwide sessions included positive behavioral interventions and supports, tiered discipline, and establishing positive relationships with students. These sessions, as well as numerous others, collectively contributed to WBMS earning one of its highest accolades in 2018, when it was named a National School to Watch.

A final aspect of focus with the faculty and staff was recognition. In studying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we estimated that most of the adults at WBMS were functioning at the fourth stage: esteem. As such, we made a concerted effort to show the staff public displays of respect whenever they met or exceeded the established high expectations. They received recognition from each other with the monthly Mugs and Kisses award or Staff of the Quarter award, which was included in the weekly staff newsletter and verbally reinforced at monthly faculty meetings. Students and parents were also able to recognize faculty and staff through encouraging messages of thanks placed on Bruin Hero cards, which were read at faculty meetings and earned teachers two movie passes (made possible from a business partnership with a local movie theater).

Faculty and staff were also recognized by the administrative team every nine weeks with the Bruin Ambassador Award. Those who had exemplary relationships with students, parents, and other staff were eligible for this recognition. Winners received a trophy and were treated to a front row parking space and picture on the website. The newest recognition program, Bruin Bucks, was started during the 2019–20 school year and gives positive recognition to faculty and staff from administration whenever they are seen meeting or exceeding high expectations. These cards can be placed in a bowl at faculty meetings, and two teachers are randomly selected, earning them the opportunity for an administrator to substitute teach for each of their classes. Besides pay increases, the thing teachers seem to covet the most is time, and this latest program gives them more of that.

Moving Parents From ‘Attending’ to ‘Participating’

One of the primary reasons why WBMS has become so successful is because parents believe so strongly in their children’s education. Whenever called upon, parents regularly arrive to WBMS to help in a variety of ways—selling tickets to events during lunches, answering phones in the main office, boxing up school items for the needy, or volunteering to be a “Team Mom” or “Dad of Great Students.” Parents at WBMS are the true muscle behind so many of the initiatives at school. With a focus on moving our parent relationships from “attending” to “participating,” WBMS has established several ways for parents to be involved in the decision making and experience of being a Bruin.

One of the most successful programs is the Parent Advisory Council. This group of parents meets three times a year to receive updates on school events—to learn about what’s upcoming and to provide feedback on ways we can be more responsive to students. A second highly successful group is the Parent-Teacher-Student Association, which meets every month to develop new opportunities for students to enjoy school and develop fundraisers to meet the needs of the student body. This particular group has been highly instrumental in securing TVs for the cafeteria, continuing the tradition of the Bruin Basketball Bash (highlighted by a student versus faculty basketball game), and creation of a brick patio at the front of the school (which includes engraved bricks of Bruin family members).

Parents are actively engaged in several other events throughout the year as well. As the school is located in a heavily military-populated area, WBMS hosts a Military Appreciation Night each year, and more than 150 individuals attend. They receive a catered meal and a free family picture, and they listen to a keynote speaker who addresses the unique experience of being in a military family. Parents also regularly participate in our Career Days, when they provide training to staff in their area of expertise; and Family Fun Night, which includes physical education activities that require students and their parents to team up to meet physical goals together.

Setting the Tone for Bruin Pride

When I arrived at WBMS six years ago as principal, one of the areas for improvement that many teachers and community members spoke to me about was the poor appearance of the building. To build pride in our building, we undertook several projects to improve the appearance of WBMS. Using the “broken windows” theory as the foundation for our efforts, we worked to remove graffiti that adorned the outside light poles and bathroom stalls, painted the hallways and auditorium the correct school colors, and artistically designed benches, ceiling tiles, and trash cans for the hallways.

Students became involved in our beautification efforts. The Student Council Association raised money so we could join the City of Chesapeake initiative of featuring our city mascot, the Blue Heron, as a sculpture at the front of our school. Students joined the Gardening Club and replaced unattractive areas on our school campus with beautifully mulched flower beds. Two of the most important changes involved building large mulch beds over barren areas in the front lawn and installing vinyl wrapping around the archway at the entrance of the school.

We used student feedback to invest a lot of attention into our restrooms. For instance, we replaced sink hardware that had allowed students to wash only one hand at a time, placed mirrors in the boys’ restrooms (which had none for more than 10 years), and placed deodorizing elements in both sets of restrooms. As one veteran WBMS teacher reported to me, “I feel like I’m coming to a professional setting.”

Final Reflections

Setting the school culture is something that takes time, patience, and collaboration. Schools that have been successful with developing a positive culture know that the journey is never over—and you shouldn’t want it to be. Regularly attending to school culture is analogous to spending time with your spouse; it’s something you need to do to keep it fresh and growing, and if you are careful and deliberate, you will likely enjoy the time you spend nurturing it.

S. Kambar Khoshaba, EdD, is the principal of Western Branch Middle School in Chesapeake, VA.