Getting the Culture Right?

The idea of building culture has been a key discussion topic for the Fellows on our trip to California, and it is something with which we have all grappled at our current and past schools. “Culture” has become somewhat of a buzzword in education; “getting the culture right” is something you hear often, discuss often, and think about often if you are in the business of building or transforming schools.

We have visited several schools that have “gotten the culture right” in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Their students know exactly what they should be doing and when they should be doing it; their transitions are tight; their hallways are silent; their single-file lines are straight; their nonverbal cues are memorized and used.  These schools have built environments that allow them to effectively integrate technology into their classrooms. They have set up systems that allow them the freedom to innovate.

But is that all that “getting the culture right” means?

Today, the Fellows visited a small Catholic school in LA that has implemented a blended learning model. Their station rotations were similar to those we had seen at many of the other schools we have visited, but the Fellows were genuinely inspired by the culture of this school. It was far different than any of the others we had seen.  At Saint Anne School, students immediately took ownership of their school and of touring visitors around their space. Older students led us through candid classroom observations, and representatives proudly stood and told us exactly what they and their classmates were doing in their stations.

On our tour, we saw some kids in choir class, and we saw others learning to play the violin. We also saw students running freely through the courtyard as they transitioned between classes. We heard kindergarteners asking each other questions at their stations, and we saw teachers laughing along with their students during mini lessons and small-group instruction.

When thinking about innovation in education, it is easy to make assumptions and overlook certain schools or types of schools because they do not seem to fit into the mix.  I had never even considered thinking about a Catholic school as a model for innovation. After our visit, however, many of the Fellows agreed that what they are doing at Saint Anne is getting close to what we want for our own schools in D.C. There, deeply rooted school pride and tradition have created a profound sense of trust and community among staff and students. They seem humble, and honest, and true. Their students are genuinely bought into their school, and they are authentically happy.  This allows them the freedom to innovate.

One of the wisest pieces of advice I have ever gotten about education is that school should be about education, not legislation. Saint Anne has certainly gotten that right—and in my opinion, more than any other school I’ve seen, they’ve gotten the culture right, too.

Nicole Welsh, 2015 Education Innovation Fellow
DC International School


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