Theresa Jensen, the principal of Engelhard Elementary in Louisville, Ky., knows it's a challenge to change a school's culture. Success, she says, depends on thinking creatively about every detail. And willingness to do that has resulted in what she calls "an incredible journey."
Take time. "If you treat people like professionals, and don't waste their time in meetings, and really use that time to assist in the work we're trying to do, it's a better use of time," she says. "Once you start that process of changing the framework, you've really changed your thinking. And when you change that, you start looking at creative ways [to use time]. We've done so much in refining the class schedule, for example. And how we do dismissal - it can be time when we read aloud to kids. You can begin and end the day with literacy."
Another issue is getting everyone from staff to parents to take responsibility for the school's success - rather than relying too heavily on any one person or event. Engelhard gets help from retirees, and membership in the parent organization is so competitive that runoff elections have been necessary.
"Often," says Mrs. Jensen, "it's perceived that as a school starts improving, there was some initial catalyst - in our case, test scores. Then it'll be perceived that a grant, or a program, or some sort of charismatic leader has driven it. When that goes, the thing falls apart.
"Community and culture is where I'm at. You need to say, it's OK to take risks, to speak up and disagree with something. That's building a culture where everyone's got an equal voice, whether it's children or parents or community members or staff. You don't know where the next good idea is going to come from. If it's driven by one thing, it's not inclusive enough."
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