The Building Excellent Schools (BES) Fellowship is a rigorous year-long program in urban charter school creation and leadership. Through the Fellowship, highly motivated individuals who are deeply committed to improving urban education participate in 100 days of comprehensive training that prepares them to design, found, and lead a high-performing, urban, college-preparatory charter school. Training days are filled with rich content on school culture, instructional leadership, strategic management, financial management, governance, community relations—the list goes on.
Observing the daily workings of over 45 of the highest performing charter schools in the country, Fellows learn from and model their schools after tried-and-true best practices. At the end of the Fellowship year, Fellows apply to establish their own free-standing, locally controlled charter school customized to the needs of its community.
In essence, we know a well-executed school from a simply well-intentioned one, know the ingredients that make it successful, and guide promising leaders through the recipe.
One of the steps in building a school that will facilitate high academic achievement for historically underserved students, is to establish a strong culture that reinforces shared beliefs and values. In some ways culture is very specific: it’s the rituals and ceremonies of the schools, the student work, and the handbook. But in another way, it is very broad: the beliefs about how students should be treated, how students should treat each other, how they learn, and the environments that make learning possible. For students who’ve never had access to high-performing schools because of their zip code, the culture at a BES school is typically unfamiliar. Building culture from scratch for a community that has yet to convene or, in the case of a BES Fellow, has yet to be enrolled in or hired by the school, is no easy task. Culture is big, and it’s both hard to create and hard to change.
Rituals set the tone for how your team and students interact with each other. They develop the ways of being and engaging in school, which shape your school culture. What do rituals look like? They can be anything from walking into a third-grade classroom and seeing Nadia smiling as she annotates her reading using the “fancy pens,” or it can be listening to the true joy exploding from Mr. Lyle as he gives Ms. Johns a shout out for bringing him lunch when he had to cover Ms. Bell’s class at the last minute so she could meet with Jordan’s mother. Members of a school community should find joy and comfort in the rituals that have been established to keep culture strong and the school functioning “normally.”
Children learn more at school than proper syntax and their times tables. They learn social behavior and ways of relating, often through the lens of school culture. There are three key aspects of fostering school culture: artifacts and creations, values, and basic assumptions. While values and basic assumptions should be set by the school leader and other administrators, students should also play a role by helping to foster culture. It is their school; its mission is their success.
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