SHAPING POSITIVE CULTURES 
IN CHARTER SCHOOLS

[ kent d. peterson ]


This article is adapted from Deal, T. E. & Peterson, K. D. (1999).
Shaping school culture: The school leader's role. San Francisco: CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

School culture comprises the underlying set of norms and values, rituals and traditions, ceremonies and stories that have been built up over time as people work and learn together (Deal & Peterson, 1994; Schein, 1985). This strong web of social expectations and beliefs shape how people think, feel, and act. A positive school culture functions to (1) sharpen the focus of staff and students, (2) build commitment and sense of community, (3) foster motivation to achieve valued ends, and (4) encourage productivity and learning.

One of the most important and powerful elements of an effective and successful school is its positive culture. In a school with a well defined and shared focus on student learning, staff and students are more likely to work toward the specific goals and mission of the school. When students, teachers, and parents -- the key stakeholders in the school's success -- have a strong sense of community and commitment to the school, they are more likely to work collectively toward the mission of the school. In a strong and positive school culture, motivation is more potent and energized. Teachers and students in such schools have an intrinsic desire to work hard, put forth effort, and persevere. Finally, in a positive school culture, students and staff learn and grow together; they become part of a vigorous learning community. (Deal & Peterson, 1999; Peterson, 1999)

To build a strong and positive school culture, leaders must attend to numerous critical issues. They must:

  • Develop a focused vision and mission. They must decide collaboratively what they want to achieve, what standards they wish to promote and what goals for student achievement they will have.
  • Identify core norms, values, and beliefs that will undergird the school. This includes identifying norms of behavior and decision making, establishing values concerning education and its purposes, and setting forth belief statements that can be guideposts for the school.
  • Generate new rituals, traditions, and ceremonies that will bring the community together, transmit the culture, and commemorate important events and transitions. Ceremonies at the beginning and end of the year are key to forging community bonds. It is important to have award and recognition events to honor people who are making a difference.
  • Foster norms of behavior that are unique to the school, norms that forge strong positive interpersonal relationships. Be clear about how teachers, students, and parents are to be treated. Specify what mix of respect, caring, concern, and support will be a trademark of the school.
  • Attend to the symbols, artifacts, history, and logos of the school. These outward manifestations of the school's culture and vision are key to communicating what the school stands for. Keeping early artifacts of a new charter school can make a difference in the future.
  • Celebrate early successes, both large and small. Without the visible celebration of efforts and achievements, motivation can be lost.

Schools with strong positive cultures have a communal sense of what is important, act in caring and concerned ways toward each other, and promote a collective commitment to helping students learn (Peterson & Deal, 1998, September).

CULTURE IN CHARTER SCHOOLS

Policymakers have instituted charter schools to be free from the bureaucratic binds of state rules. Each school is free to develop a unique mission -- one designed to serve their specific population of students and parents -- and to establish norms and values compatible with its mission. It is free to generate rituals, traditions, and ceremonies that move students, staff, and parents toward realizing the school's mission. In sum, a charter school is free to articulate its mission and to develop a strong positive school culture to support that mission. This is, of course, easier for a charter school that is new than for one formed from an established school with a long-standing culture that may be negative or in direct opposition to the newly formulated mission (Peterson & Deal, 1998).

Charter schools have a unique opportunity to develop a strong positive school culture. Vision and mission are based on the charter of the school and help define the focus of the school. All are working toward the same ends. It is extremely important for school leaders, staff, and students to help shape and maintain a positive culture that reinforces the vision and mission of the school. Being free from most or all state rules, charter schools are free to organize governance and instruction in innovative ways that foster living their vision and moving toward their specific goals and mission. In spite of the special circumstances and opportunity a charter school has, it is never simple to build a strong supportive culture, even in a new school. They must still attend to all of the issues indicated above.

REFERENCES

Deal, T. E.& Peterson, K. D. (1994). The leadership paradox: Balancing logic and artistry in schools. San Francisco: CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Deal, T. E. & Peterson, K. D. (1999). Shaping school culture: The school leader's role. San Francisco: CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Peterson, K. D. & Deal, T. E. (1998, September). How leaders influence the culture of schools. Educational Leadership. 56(1).

Peterson, K. D. (1999). Shaping school culture and standards-based reform. Speech at the National Staff Development Council annual conference, Dallas, TX.

Schein, E. (1985). Organizational Culture and Leadership. San Francisco: CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

 

 FEATURES OF A STRONG POSITIVE SCHOOL CULTURE
  • Staff has a shared sense of purpose and pour their hearts into teaching.

  • Staff and administrators share norms of collegiality, improvement, and hard work.

  • Rituals and traditions celebrate student accomplishment, teacher originality, and parental commitment.

  • A shared mission for the school bonds everyone to core goals.

  • Success, joy, and humor fill the corridors.

  • Parents, staff, and administrators possess a shared sense of community.

(Deal & Peterson, 1999)

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FROM THE DIRECTOR: BEYOND THE CONTROVERSIAL IN CHARTER SCHOOLS

[ about the author ]

KENT D. PETERSON is a Senior Training and Research Specialist for the Comprehensive Center­Region VI and Professor of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin­Madison.

 

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