A school’s perception as a caring community is characterized by strong relationships, rigor as a core value, and inspiring leadership. While high-stakes accountability is important, it is also essential that school leaders balance an intense focus on student achievement with a caring school environment. The Professional Standards for Educational Leaders emphasize the importance of combining care with academic rigor. When this combination is present, communities develop within schools that promote student engagement, motivation, and success—particularly among students at risk of adverse outcomes. The voluntary connection with the school made by students who engage with extracurricular activities leads to improved attitudes toward learning, enhanced college and career goals, increased academic performance, and a higher perception of their self-value through their social interactions with adults and their peers. A transformation to a school’s culture requires strategic action by the principal—action built upon compassion and relationship-​building—if changes are to be accepted.

Culture of Caring Encourages Participation

The first step in supporting student engagement through participation in extracurricular activities is assessing the school’s current climate. Principals need to measure how the current dynamic of teacher-student relationships impacts the school’s culture. If a culture of caring is not demonstrated through teacher-student interactions, students will not feel compelled to participate, and the opportunity to have students fully engaged with the school will be lost. Since the school’s culture is often tied to certain traditional events, gauging the percentage of students and teachers attending and participating in these events can give the principal a sense of the current climate.

Surveys, such as the “School Culture Triage Survey” created by Christopher Wagner, can be used to evaluate staff perceptions of the school climate by measuring the degree to which professional collaboration, affiliative and collegial relationships, and efficacy are present. Finally, reviewing the structural policies for student involvement in extracurricular activities allows the principal to determine if such policies support the engagement of all students. Though opportunities for student engagement in extracurricular activities are present at all schools, the representation of students who are at risk, minorities, and of lower socio-economic status remains distinctly low.

A principal cannot champion a cultural shift alone, however. Principals should identify staff members who already demonstrate a sincere commitment to student engagement and then task these individuals with identifying areas where the school is lacking in promoting student engagement—perhaps as a result of the absence of needed opportunities for students.

Further, adults at the school must promote various definitions of success for students. Not all students will follow a college-bound trajectory, so principals should ensure flexibility in the school’s goals so that students feel liberated to determine their own route to success.

The vision of a new school culture will become embedded in the work of staff and stakeholders if properly communicated by the principal. Tackling the factors that inhibit student involvement will require creative thinking and proper utilization of resources. Enlist the support of all stakeholders in rallying around the renewed school climate to make it easier to address challenges.

Given the scarcity of resources, the principal must find creative methods for eliminating barriers to student involvement. Scheduling creativity during the school day, opportunities for engaging parents, and a reallocation of resources can help overcome many inhibiting factors. Obtaining the support of politicians and business leaders who will benefit from the school’s improved culture and academic achievement can also increase student access to extracurricular programs.

To ensure continued support, the principal must recognize achievements both in and out of the classroom. Implement structural components, such as recognition ceremonies or pep rallies, that ensure that accomplishments from all extracurricular activities are celebrated. This increases the visibility of the variety of available activities and motivates students to be involved according to their talent or interest.

An Eye for Hiring

Principals should be aware of their hiring practices to ensure that this culture is sustained—seek new teachers who will contribute to the school culture by offering programming to students. Build staff diversity so that students can pursue their unique interests, increase opportunities for positive mentoring, and seek relationships with compassionate adults.

By recruiting teachers who demonstrate a sincere devotion to student engagement, the principal will promote an atmosphere that embraces a “pedagogy of love”—a way to establish relationships built on empathy and respect and to demonstrate the type of emotional intelligence that supports a schoolwide culture of compassion. Teachers will provide opportunities for students to develop a greater sense of self-awareness, connect learning to their own lives, and form a consciousness around learned content that leads to meaningful action.

Finally, correlations between extracurricular involvement and academic achievement must be continually assessed to validate the allocation of resources to such programming. Principals may need to creatively allocate time during the school day to provide opportunities for students to be involved in activities that support their interests and talents. While allocating time for such opportunities could lead to a loss of instructional time, the benefits gained will have a far more significant impact.

Final Considerations

Principals must address diversity and professional development throughout the change process so that student involvement in extracurricular activities is supported and cultural changes take root. Many principals and teachers adopt a mindset that students’ lack of academic success and engagement with school is a result of problems experienced outside of the school setting—e.g., poverty, lack of parental support, or an obligation to work to support the family. This cultural deficit framework leads to a perception that these deficits cannot be overcome. Even worse, focusing on students’ deficits reduces rigor and blinds educators to problems inherent in the school culture or curriculum. If principals are to shift the school culture, they must institute policies built upon equitable principles so that a sincere understanding of diversity will be embraced. When your policies promote student involvement in a variety of activities that meet the interests and talents of all students, you establish a culture that promotes acceptance, tolerance, and engagement.

Most professional development provided to educators centers on instructional best practices. Certainly, this professional development is important in improving the quality of instruction within the school. However, if teachers are deficient in their ability to cultivate meaningful relationships, then professional learning focused on instructional improvement will not have its intended effect. Building the capacity of teachers to engage students by fostering quality, trusting relationships is paramount to a principal’s work in developing his staff’s efficacy. Participating in immersion experiences that allow teachers to develop their “intercultural competence” can build an awareness of how students’ culture impacts learning systems. Such immersion programs enable individuals to reanalyze their biases, potentially reducing a framework of cultural deficiency and focusing on each student’s ability to achieve.

Furthermore, principals should seek opportunities for enhancing the capacity of activity sponsors to support students’ emotional needs. Teachers, particularly those who will be involved in offering extracurricular programming, should be provided training on meeting students’ psychosocial needs. When teachers can provide emotional support to students, those students feel valued, leading to a greater opportunity for engagement within the school context.

Paul J. Agnew, EdD, is an academic supervisor in the Teaching, Learning, and Assessment division of the Mobile County Public School System in Mobile, AL.