4 Elements to Support a Thriving School Culture

By: | 08/18/2021
Categories: Data Culture, Leadership

At Jackson Elementary School, part of Georgia’s Clayton County Public Schools (CCPS), everything begins with a strong culture. Starting with the school’s leadership, including Principal Dr. William Greene, Jr. and Assistant Principal Angela Jenifer, each member of the staff and faculty understands and contributes to the culture The Jackson Elementary (as the school is known to its staff and students) is building.

The school’s culture strengthens the academic focus on data-driven learning to increase student achievement. Relationship building, data-based learning models, stakeholder involvement, and teacher training are four essential elements of a thriving school environment.

Relationship Building

According to Dr. Greene, relationships are key. “Sometimes we assume that everybody is in the relationship-building business, but that’s not always the case,” he says. “Some people are in the business of education, and others are in the business of children. We are in the business of children.”

Part of the faculty’s relationship building comes in the form of team-building exercises. Leaders recently held a retreat around the theme: What is in a student’s bookbag? The retreat centered on getting to know the challenges students are facing and how those challenges contribute to students’ mindsets entering school, so the faculty could improve how they personalize relationships with kids.

The process expanded into teachers sharing their personal stories as an intertwined element. “When the teachers started to open up and talk about their experiences, you found out that teachers had someone who cared about them and helped them be successful,” says Dr. Greene. Understanding, caring adults who want to be there for the kids are the foundation of school culture at Jackson Elementary. Even during the hiring process, they are looking for authentic people who possess those traits.

The relationship building has also benefited from the school becoming smaller. An arts magnet school was previously integrated into Jackson Elementary, but it departed a few years ago and, as a result, reduced enrollment from 1,200 to 600. This gave school leadership an opportunity to really zero in on personalization and the “small is better” principle. “When we were a large school, our administration couldn’t put our hands around the staff,” says Jenifer. “We had a higher turnover rate. Since we’ve become smaller and [initiated] the relationship building, our turnover rate has dropped tremendously. With a low turnover rate, we can move faster, and we don’t have to acclimate new individuals and instead promote within.”

“It all trickles down,” she adds. “We make sure our staff is treated well. We want our teachers to treat the children the same as we are going to treat them. It’s like a family, and teachers are able to come to the administration.”

Data-Driven, Tech-Enabled Learning

As the restructuring of the school took place, so did the adoption of forward-thinking learning tools to assess and increase scores for learners. The school’s use of i-Ready contributed to a significant increase in Reading scores, even over the course of the pandemic. Over the period when COVID-19 restrictions were in place, i-Ready Assessment showed increases of 14 percent in Mathematics and 13 percent in Reading.

As learning transitioned to virtual during the past year, Jackson Elementary kept up with i-Ready instruction and made sure devices were available for all. “Our district was good about making sure kids received laptops, even with the amount of economically challenged families in our district,” adds Dr. Greene. “New hotspots were created. It was a complete wraparound process.”

Proud of his commitment to digital learning, Dr. Greene chose a creative idea based on a Star Wars® theme to bring the point across during the pandemic. Dressed up as characters from the film, the school leaders created the “JEDI,” an acronym for Jackson Elementary Digital Institute. This demonstrated Jackson Elementary’s embrace of digital learning and technology, and it helped increase buy-in from students and families.

Stakeholder Involvement

Stakeholder involvement was one of the major benefits of virtual learning, and the school was intentional about fostering involvement and generating buy-in from all stakeholders, families included. Dr. Greene combined his relationship-building approach with effective use of educational technology to increase family engagement. The school created Most Virtual Participant (MVP) awards to show appreciation to families and held MVP parades to celebrate. For families who were working hard to support their students during virtual learning, the message was simple: “We appreciate the work you’re doing with your [students].”

“Our district is focused on the acceleration of learning, instead of over-focusing on what was missed,” states Dr. Greene. There may be an assumption of some learning loss during the pandemic, but CCPS—Jackson Elementary included—is concentrating on how to accelerate and sustain student growth moving forward. To this aim, the school often brings together stakeholders to discuss long-term goals and have everyone contribute their perspective on how to achieve those goals.

Teacher Training

Even after 22 years in education, Dr. Greene still sees much of the process of educating students as “trial by fire.” Circumstances are everchanging, and educators need to use their expertise and intuition to find the right solution. In any context, however, one thing he knows for sure is that excellent teacher training is paramount to success, and setting the foundation for teacher professional development (PD) begins with the example of leadership. “We spend a lot of time in PD as administrators,” says Dr. Greene. “We believe in the speed of trust. When you have relationships where you have trust, you can build the relationships to get things done.”

With respect to the school’s teachers, he adds, “Teachers desire to increase knowledge with PD, and they are signing up on their own. As teachers’ quality increases, so does [students’] learning.” This spring, teachers took the initiative on their own to return to the building early just to get a head start on the upcoming year.

Jackson Elementary represents an example of the growth potential for a Title I school when exemplary leadership focuses on enhancing school culture at its core. In an environment of trust and strong relationships, data-driven, tech-enabled learning can thrive. Dr. Greene, Jenifer, and the school’s faculty demonstrate daily why they’re proud to be a part of The Jackson Elementary.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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