”School culture grows out of the “norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that have built up over time as people work together, solve problems and confront challenges,” and it shapes “how people think, feel, and act in schools” (Peterson & Deal, 1998, 28).

In the schools we studied, the adults (administrators, teachers, support staff) were eager to come to school to work, learn, and grow because they believed they were part of a team that was making an increasingly powerful difference in the lives of their students. Students wanted to come to school and learn because the adults convinced them that the entire school community was committed to their success.

These vibrant, energized school cultures emerged over time as administrators, teachers, support staff, and families
came to believe in the capacity of their students to achieve at high levels and in their own collective capacity to achieve life-changing outcomes for the students they served. However, these beliefs did not happen by chance. Rather, school leaders purposefully designed their schools to support teachers and students in ways that led to them to believe in themselves and each other, to take risks, to be willing to change, and to keep going despite setbacks and challenges. In these urban schools, where all demographic groups of students were achieving at or above the proficiency levels of all students in their state, we found what that a positive, transformational school culture was providing the foundation for excellent and equitable learning outcomes.

We define the culture as positive because in each of these high-performing schools we found strong, healthy learning environments where administrators, teachers, staff members, and families treated one another as valued partners in the education of their students. Trust and mutual respect were evident in the relationships between and among all school personnel. Students perceived that the adults in the school knew them well and were committed to their success in school and beyond. They felt appreciated, cared for, and loved.

Many schools across the county can boast strong, positive relationships between and among all stakeholders. However, in the very successful urban schools, NCUST has awarded, the adults in the school also shared a deep commitment to ensuring that each and every student excelled. This commitment resulted in administrators, teachers, and staff investing the necessary energy to pursue curricular and instructional change. When student performance data and other indicators suggested that some students were not thriving, the educators in these urban schools felt compelled to rethink and reshape what they were doing to better meet the needs of all of the students they served. And, while they recognized the tremendous barriers they faced related to poverty, family traumas, racial issues, neighborhood violence, and a multitude of other concerns, educators continued to assume that they could transform their schools into places where all students could excel.

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