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Prioritizing School Culture and Climate: Keys to Success

Remarkable. The word gets thrown around more than it should in schools.

And far too easily.

Once in a great while, though, it fits where nothing else will.

That’s what happened one recent afternoon during a visit to Richland County School District #2 in South Carolina.

I was in a meeting with school administrators, talking strategic planning. The superintendent—a visionary school leader by the name of Dr. Baron Davis—had issued a challenge to his team.

His district desperately needed to move the needle on student achievement. But throwing more resources at the classroom wasn’t the answer. Not absent other strategic investments.

Davis and his team made a point that student achievement rests on a platform of high-quality teaching and, below that, a strong culture and environment for growth. Absent these foundational elements, they posited, there could be no hope of student achievement.

When the conversation turned to climate, I expected administrators to trot out a once-a-year community survey tethered to a bunch of indecipherable data. Or, worse, to plunk a 150-page strategic plan down on the conference table and say, it’s all in here, somewhere.

I remember thinking, here it comes. Except that’s not what happened. Instead, the team unveiled one of the most eloquent and instructive illustrations on the relevance and importance of a strong school climate that I’ve ever seen.

I sat forward on the edge of my seat, and thought, if ever there was a picture worth a thousand words, this is it.      

LearningMost school districts spin their wheels obsessing over student achievement, while consistently chipping away at the support programs that drive other foundational aspects of their success, like culture and climate. As resources become more scarce, administrators routinely fail to make investments in communications and customer service; they opt out of reporting systems that track how schools make parents, students, and teachers feel. All the while, pumping more resources into the classroom.

The result is akin to trying to drive fast on the highway with a flat tire. Too many promising K-12 schools sputter in spite of great teaching and learning and end up falling woefully short of their strategic goals.

What Davis and his team have done—what is so remarkable about their work—isn’t the emphasis they’ve placed on climate, it’s that they’ve managed to draw a bright and demonstrable line between climate and achievement.

Bear in mind, this isn’t a district with untold resources. Richland serves a predominantly minority population, with a large percentage of students on free-and-reduced lunch. Administrators there routinely confront many of the same seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by the nation’s largest urban districts.

And yet, the team is constantly presenting fresh and innovative ways to drive student success. It’s remarkable and inspiring work.

At any moment in this country, one-fifth of school districts are engaged in some sort of strategic planning. If you’re one of them, does your plan include a strong foundation of culture and climate? Are you building a future that will help your students and your community succeed in spite of the challenges they face? Or, are you trying to drive fast on the academic highway with a flat tire?

There’s something undeniably powerful in the simplicity of the strategy that Davis and his team have articulated. If you’re ready to address culture and climate as part of your strategic plan, I’m happy to share my thoughts and what we’ve learned in partnering with innovative districts like Richland 2. Message me on LinkedIn, or visit our website at www.k12insight.com and let’s talk.