Several years ago I wrote assisted with a charter high school application which had the primary component, "a small school atmosphere." We believed no student should "fall through the cracks" and at least one caring adult should know each student. I believe schools can model tenets of the small school atmosphere even if they are over the 500 student mark, which many consider the threshold for a small school. Most important is the school culture.
The October 2002 edition of "Research You Can Use" states:
Peterson defines school culture as the set of norms, values and beliefs, ritual, ceremonies, symbols, and stories that make of the persona of the school. According to him, "These unwritten expectations build up over time as teachers, administrators, parents, and students work together, to solve problems, deal with challenges and at times, cope with failures. However, many schools have negative or toxic cultures that do not support the changes in teacher practice that promote increased student achievement.One of the advantages to creating a new charter school is it's easier to build a new, positive school culture instead of trying to improve a toxic school culture. But more often than not, charter school founders struggle to establish the culture they initially envisioned or the students that actually enroll don't match the founder's vision making the desired school culture even more difficult to acquire.
A charter school best practice is to start small and grow one grade level at a time. This allows the new school to clearly define its culture before adding new students and families. Adding new students equal to or more than one-half of a school's student count has been defined as the tipping point, which can adversely affect the school culture. This percentage should probably drop to a lower figure in secondary schools where incoming students have normalized toxic behaviors from their other schools.
Good charter schools determine, before they ever open, how they will assess their school culture and ensure that it continues to be an environment that promotes student academic achievement.
Rick DuFour states that "The question facing educational leaders is not: Will our school have a culture? But "Will we make a conscious effort to shape our culture?" The first step in shaping the culture is to conduct an assessment. Barth (2002) indicates that instructional leaders must first become aware of the culture. He suggests a series of questions that leaders might ask:
What do you see, hear, and experience in the school?
What don’t you see and hear?
What are the clues that reveal the school’s culture?
What behaviors get rewards and status?
Which ones are greeted with reprimands?
Do the adults model the behavior they expect of students?
Who makes the decisions?
Do parents experience welcome, suspicion, or rejection when they enter the school?
Beginning traditions is an important way to convey the value of academics or character development. School leaders should intentionally give awards, display recognition plaques, honor staff members, recognize student academic achievement, and model expected behaviors. The larger the school size, the harder it is to maintain a positive school culture. Behaviors and traditions must be intentional rather than accidental. Staff professional development and performance pay plans should prioritize expected behaviors.
Standard 4 of the 9 + 1 Standards and Indicators for School Improvement addresses school culture. The associated resource handbook contains a variety of "how to's" for improving school culture.