How can we better utilize our campus features and the design of our classrooms and gathering spaces to foster community and advance our mission?
That's the motivating question for school leaders across the country in every genre of education who are looking for a competitive edge while also elevating the quality of learning and engagement. Building on the momentum of stronger enrollment and philanthropic commitment, they are exploring methods that are uncommon within the education space but appear to offer powerful distinctives.
Culture, more than any other strategy or program, is the one sustainable competitive advantage that enables greater joy in school leadership and long-term impact throughout the community.
We are safe and connected
St. Agnes Academy and St. Dominic School (SAA & SDS) in Memphis began their journey to authentic, sustainable excellence four years ago with a resolute commitment by their administration and board to persistently cultivate the correlated disciplines and environment.
Defining and defending the desired culture was the starting point, with clearly articulated goals and core values combined with consistent training and reinforcement. Building trust throughout the ecosystem of the school became the top priority, using communication methods and interpersonal signals that increase the sense of safety and strengthen relationships.
Culture is also defined by the physical environment. Just hearing something said rarely produces changes in behavior. Words are just noise until our educators and families can see physical transitions that trigger people to interact differently. Team performance depends on behavior that communicates a powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected!
We are what we do
A dangerous misconception about highly successful school cultures is that everyone is happy and carefree. That's a false narrative that squashes purpose-driven leadership.
Schools that are authentically excellent have a leadership team and faculty who are talented, energized and engaged. They are genuinely motivated by the mission and solving the hard challenges that every school faces rather than chasing after the unreachable nirvana of consensus and happiness.
Overcoming longstanding traditions and practices is one of those hard challenges. The leadership at SAA & SDS understands that we are what we do, and changing what we do almost always requires expanding and upgrading the look and feel of the experience.
So, building on the momentum created through their School Growth Plan, they launched a campaign to build new classroom spaces to support their curricular goals, and they are exploring how to renovate current facilities to support the defined culture. Utilizing the expertise of Metcalfe Architecture & Design, they began a deep dive into discussions about the schools' cultural moments, significant places, big events and traditions and where these events happen.
These Interpretive Master Plan conversations were combined with walkthroughs of the campus to evaluate the facilities and define the physical "heartbeat" places that speak specifically to who the school is and wants be to their community. Genuine brand narratives were created about how each visitor should experience the school, especially prospective families who are seeing the campus for the first time.
Through this reflective study they are discovering new ways to foster community. Great schools ask great questions and then they act with disciplined people and thinking that enables them to truly advance on that journey to authentic excellence.
Culture is Hard
The school's culture can catalyze success or it can crush all hope of emerging as a healthy organization. The values and beliefs that are expressed as important often are not reflected in the day-to-day attitude and behaviors of the administrators, teachers, staff, etc. Surveys provide static snapshots of the culture, but generally fail to capture the dynamics of the whole experience as well opportunities to innovate.
A crucial aptitude for a school to achieve excellence is educator adaptability, where they rapidly learn and adjust as the strategies and norms of the organization change in response to the larger goals and the community they serve. We live in an innovation economy with the needs and demands of families evolving faster than ever before.
While culture is hard, the schools that get it right are aligned and work in unity from top to bottom. They provide the best environment for educators to thrive and produce the highest levels of consistent student growth. With everything else in their world rapidly shifting and unpredictable, the school can serve as a reliable and trustworthy constant in the lives of faculty and families.
Culture is Experienced
We’ve created an assessment to help you determine how your campus design contributes to the culture and curriculum.
- How well does the overall campus design support the level of community and engagement promised to faculty and families?
- Is curriculum innovation enabled or constrained by the layout and structure?
- Do faculty and families utilize the facilities in a manner that is conducive to joyful learning?
This assessment is used to determine the Campus Culture Alignment Type:
Culture-Positive: Enables and encourages strategy-aligned experiences
Culture-Neutral: Neither advances nor limits the culture and curriculum
Culture-Negative: Limits the effectiveness of the faculty and strategies