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Turnaround Schools Create Culture of Achievement

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    Ben Smith

The first graders in Melba Lindsey’s class at Delaware Academy in Syracuse, NY hold themselves and their friends to very high standards. “Be sure you’re walking with excellence,” one little boy reminded a classmate who was running in the hallway recently. “That’s the Delaware Dolphin Way.”This stated commitment to excellent behavior is something new at Delaware Academy, recently designated as a “turnaround school,” in need of reform because of its performance in the bottom five percent in the country on standardized assessments.

There are many reasons why Delaware was once a struggling school once characterized by a high suspension rate, poor attendance rates, and low teacher morale. Ninety-six percent of Delaware’s students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, more than 85 percent of the school’s population consists of minority students, and 41 percent are second language learners. When a redesign team charged with finding ways to rapidly and significantly improve the school the school began searching for solutions, they looked for models that offered strong support for instruction, curriculum, and leadership, but they also knew that they needed assistance to create an intentional school culture that would help all of their students feel valued, safe, and committed to learning.


Delaware’s redesign team ultimately chose Expeditionary Learning as a turnaround partner, a framework that emphasizes growth in student character – especially performance characteristics such as perseverance and commitment to quality work – because it is predictive of growth on high stakes assessments. Expeditionary Learning’s president and CEO, Scott Hartl, emphasizes this point. “You don’t have to choose between a school culture that allows students to demonstrate leadership and ownership of their learning and breakthrough test results,” he said. The Expeditionary Learning turnaround model connects the important work of building positive school culture with academic rigor and 21st Century skill development.

“The idea of excellence now pervades everything we do,” said Lindsey, a member of Delaware’s redesign team. “They aren’t just thinking about excellent behavior – they’re thinking about excellent work.” The school’s “code of character,” which starts off, “We aspire to excellence…,” has become a school wide touchstone. And Lindsey’s first graders, in addition to learning to walk appropriately in the hallways, have dramatically improved their reading and math skills over first graders from previous years. Nurturing this culture of excellence is already reaping great rewards.

Schools can intentionally build this “culture of achievement,” said Mark Conrad, regional director for Expeditionary Learning, which is partnering with both Delaware Academy and another turnaround school in New Haven, Connecticut, Brennan-Rogers. “One of the most critical elements of all Expeditionary Learning schools, which often outperform state and district averages, is a strong, positive culture,” Conrad added. “These cultures are not accidents. They have been intentionally designed by adults to help students and themselves stay focused on quality, character, and connection.”

Expeditionary Learning schools distinguish their codes of character – reminders of moral and performance traits that help people achieve their full potential – from codes of conduct, which are usually lengthy lists of rules. Codes of character often include words like “excellence,” “perseverance,” “integrity,” and “craftsmanship.”

Developing a code of character first involves imagining a school as the kind of place both students and adults can thrive in. “It was exciting and extremely positive to collaborate in envisioning what we wanted our school to be,” said Nikai Sullivan, a third grade teacher at Brennan-Rogers, who has been deeply involved in the turnaround process.

Sullivan’s partner teacher, Jen Dauphinais, came to teaching from the communications industry. “I have never worked anywhere in business or other settings where you come together to create a common language and culture that’s the anchor for everyone’s actions,” she commented.

Once developed, it’s not enough for the code to be posted on the walls. Teachers in the turnaround schools began the year by helping students unpack the meaning of each of the words in the code of character. “High expectations without high quality instruction about how to meet those expectations isn’t enough,” said Lucy Kaempffe, an Expeditionary Learning school designer working with Delaware staff. “Students of all ages need to be taught the meaning behind the words and need opportunities for practice and feedback on the social norms expected in a group.”

For example, in Dawn Vontz’s second grade classroom at Brennan-Rogers, she established a weekly theme focusing on the qualities in the code of character. One week Ms. Vontz’s Crew focused on the quality of “pride.” During that week, students wore large buttons exclaiming the message, “Ask me why I’m proud!” When the children gathered in the classroom each morning, Ms. Vontz shared a quote or brief story about pride and facilitated dialogue among the students about the meaning of pride and how they can show with it through excellent work.

In order for a code of character to make a difference, it must be kept alive throughout the day. Teachers in these turnaround schools posted signs in the school hallways prompting passersby to wonder “Are you up to Code?” Gentle reminders come in the form of “code checks,” and students who mistakenly forget the code, choose to avoid following the code, or are challenged by following it for whatever reason, are coached by teachers to reflect on what part of the community’s values they’ve forgotten to uphold.


Instead of teachers telling students how to behave, Brennan-Rogers teacher Stacey Haines notes that the code empowers her middle school students to think for themselves about their own behavior and to articulate areas for improvement, “The code has helped my students realize they’re not meeting expectations,” Haines said. “When a challenge arises, we ask them if they’re up to code and they identify what changes need to be made.”

This shift to empowering students to reflect on their behavior has been critical to setting a positive tone that even the students are noticing. “The school is one hundred percent different,” remarked Tyquanna, a sixth grader who has been at Brennan-Rogers since kindergarten. “Before this year there were so many fights and yelling and screaming. People didn’t show respect or unity. Now teachers respect us and we show respect to each other. The code reminds us to do that.”

Beyond the code, these schools have invested time in two other school wide structures that are helping to create a culture of achievement – Crew and Community Meetings.

Expeditionary Learning was founded on the principles of Outward Bound, an adventured-based leadership development organization which reminds its participants how important it is to be “crew, not passengers.” Crews are small groups that look out for each other. They are mutually interdependent, helping each other over the rough spots and celebrating each others’ successes. In Expeditionary Learning schools, small groups of students and an adult have a “Crew meeting” together each day. At Delaware and Brennan-Rogers each day starts with Crew meetings.

“Taking the time to say good morning to each Crew member has been a significant element in our renewal,” said Patti Brody, second grade teacher at Delaware Academy. “When we say our code together each morning, we remind ourselves of the kind of students – the kind of people – we are hoping to be.” Other elements of Crew meetings include “initiatives,” or teambuilding games, opportunities for students to show personal responsibility by sharing affirmations and apologies with each other, character-based read-alouds, and student goal-setting and self-assessment through personal and shared goal-tracking.

The feeling of Crew drives academic achievement, say teachers working in these high-pressure schools. Brennan-Rogers first grade teacher Barbara Averna posted a bulletin board so that all students could see the progress each member of the class was making on the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). “We moved up a level, we need to celebrate!” piped up one class member recently, much to Averna’s satisfaction. “It doesn’t matter who moves up. They know it means growth and we celebrate everyone’s growth because we work together as a Crew,” she said.

At both Brennan-Rogers and Delaware, students help plan and lead school-wide Community Meetings, a time when the entire school comes together to reinforce the school wide code of character and to celebrate the growth and achievement of members of the school community. It is not unusual to see students and teachers singing and dancing together at a Community Meeting, collectively cheering for each other’s accomplishments. “It shows unity in our school and everyone gets recognized for the hard work they do,” said Jonathan, an eighth grade student at Brennan-Rogers.


Planning for these community building structures like Crew and Community Meeting takes time, teachers in both schools note. Faculty members share the planning load. After each Community Meeting planners meet to debrief how the meeting went and identify areas for improvement. Over time both schools have developed strategies for smoother transitions into and out of the meeting, signals for student attention, appropriate celebration during the meeting, and rotation lists for teacher participation. “By sharing the load across the school, everyone helps make the change,” said Kaempffe. “It’s not something that’s being done for people or to people, it’s something that’s being done with people.”

Teachers and leaders at both Brennan-Rogers and Delaware sometimes worry that the time they spend building their culture of achievement means less time for more commonplace test preparation strategies. But “creating a culture of achievement and responsibly preparing students for rigorous assessments are not mutually exclusive activities,” said Expeditionary Learning regional director Conrad, pointing out that some of the Expeditionary Learning schools with the strongest school cultures are also the highest performing schools in their districts on state assessments.

“Of course it’s the combination of great school culture, sophisticated use of data, engaging curriculum, and targeted, high-quality instruction that’s going to help our most struggling students close the achievement gap,” Conrad concluded. “But what we already see at both Delaware and Brennan-Rogers is that students who are supported to improve their work in a culture of achievement make great gains and feel really good about themselves and their schools.”

Creating a Culture of Achievement
Across the United States, many Expeditionary Learning schools are experiencing student achievement gains that are erasing the achievement gap and placing every student on the path to college. These same schools are also setting the standard for rigorous project-based learning and the development of 21st Century Skills. What do these schools have in common?

Teachers and administrators in Expeditionary Learning schools deliberately create school cultures that place students at the center of every decision and ensure that adults actively and consciously model everything they expect of students. Expeditionary Learning articulates three interrelated qualities that help schools build cultures of excellence:

A Culture of Quality
Students are invested in high quality, original work that addresses authentic needs and audiences beyond the classroom.

Through revision and multiple drafts, students embrace the notion that working hard and making mistakes are expected parts of the learning process.

Students “own” their achievement, reflect on their progress, and discuss their growth honestly using assessment data, learning targets, and examples of their work.

A Culture of Character
Students embrace a consistent set of values that express high expectations for achievement, character, and behavior.

Students are courteous and respectful to one another, school staff, and guests and serve as student ambassadors beyond the school walls.
Students become leaders in the school and beyond through decision-making, self-reflection, and service.

A Culture of Connection
Students build strong relationships with other students, their teachers, and school leaders.

Students collaborate deeply with their peers and build a sense that they are part of a group with the collective capacity to accomplish challenging tasks.

About the authors: Amy Parmenter, Lily Newman, and Cheryl Dobbertin are school designers at Expeditionary Learning.