Walk the halls of Elizabethton High School, an XQ school in rural Tennessee, and you’re bound to be drawn to one of the many curious images on display through the school’s culture wall.
A sweater-wearing cyclone.
A covered bridge.
They may seem unusual at first, but a closer look reveals that they are actually pieces in the larger story of Elizabethton’s history and of the school’s mission, and an intentional way to make sure the school’s values are never out of sight.
For many high schools, the mission and culture of their institution are often just sentences in a handbook, quickly forgotten. But at Elizabethton, where the mission is to build a culture for students to become changemakers, the school created a visual representation of their guiding principles.
But their culture wall didn’t just appear out of thin air. It’s the result of Elizabethton’s intentional efforts and dedication defining its mission and values and a testament to XQ’s Design Principles and the belief that building a strong shared sense of values can help transform high schools and ensure graduates are prepared to face an uncertain future.
Defining a School’s Identity
A strong mission and culture consists of a set of unifying values and principles that give a school a sense of common purpose and a fundamental belief in the potential of every student. Creating that culture requires a number of factors including a growth mindset for all learners, a mission centered in equity and supported by shared goals, and a leader who empowers stakeholders to become champions of that vision.
Elizabethton’s work to define their own mission and culture began shortly after Dr. Jon Minton became principal in 2019. At the time, the school had gone through a number of short stints of leadership and needed to regather its identity, so Minton set to work with the entire faculty to reassess where the school had been and where it was headed.
Today, Elizabethton has defined its mission to “build a culture for learners to think and to act as changemakers” by creating a “21st-century learning environment where everyone is held accountable, reaches for excellence, embraces community, displays resilience, and values integrity.” Student voice was instrumental in the design process, making Elizabethton a school that bucks the status quo.
“We wanted kids to be more than just good test takers. [We wanted to make sure that they] could learn something and do something great with it,” says Elizabethton educator Alex Campbell. “We want our kids to grow up and look at the world and make it better.”
A Mission Rooted in Community
When Minton and the faculty gathered to redefine the school’s mission, they not only wanted to build a school that ensured strong learner outcomes and instilled core competencies in every student, they also wanted to ensure that students understood the city’s roots and the opportunities available to them.
The town of Elizabethton sits in the northeast corner of Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail runs through its backyard and the Great Smoky Mountains are only a short drive away. Since it began in 1908, the school has been a source of pride for the community, remaining the only high school in the city to this day. But the modern relationship between students and the town has been another matter.
Campbell, who started teaching at the school over a decade ago, says that students had grown disconnected from their community. For years, young people had been leaving Elizabethton, drawn away by opportunities in bigger cities like Raleigh and Nashville. Campbell and other faculty wanted to show that the town still had plenty to offer. That’s why the mission and culture of the school is as deeply rooted in the community as it is in academics.
“It’s pretty unique. The community core value is one of the most powerful because we have what we have because of who we have around us. We’ve got the same funding as every other state school, but we’ve got above par facilities and expectations because we have high expectations from the community and people who support us.”
Courses like entrepreneurship show students the true meaning of community and how to become passionate communicators, one of the school’s core competencies, as they look ahead to the future. Recently, Minton says a group of students put together a plan for a school-branded coffee shop and received $3,000 in funding along with training and equipment from members of the community.Those kinds of tangible results help reinforce the value of the school’s competencies.
“Now we can go back to the kids and say, that’s what being a passionate communicator is about. It yielded a result,” Minton says. He’s watched students who struggle to see the value of school through traditional classes rejuvenated by these kinds of projects and the support of their community, and leave Elizabethton prepared for success and to make positive changes in the world.
This year, Campbell is leading a new course on teaching as a profession, a class that is particularly relevant to students and their careers. As a rural county, the district school system is one of the largest employers in Elizabethton.
Campbell says he hopes students are beginning to recognize what makes their community special, and that even if they do leave, they can look back on their home, and school, with pride.
“We had conversations about how to help our students learn they are rooted here. The town is not a perfect place, but students are going to take things away that will make them special,” Campbell says.
The Elizabethton Culture Wall
After the school defined its new mission and vision, Minton says he didn’t want that just to be the end of the discussion.
“We couldn’t just hang it over the office door and put it in the handbook,” Minton says. With community input, a small team of faculty honed the words down to what would become the school’s driving philosophy.
But students wanted to take the work even further. Inspired by a culture wall after a visit to Crosstown High, a fellow XQ school in Memphis, as well as a trip to the University of Tennessee, a group of student’s in Campbell’s senior capstone course decided to create a culture wall of their own, with visual representations of all nine competencies that define Elizabethton’s mission, including being passionate communicators and life-long learners, along with five core competencies, like community, integrity, and resilience.
Typically, the senior capstone course revolves around a project outside the school, but with the start of the pandemic and students unable to leave the classroom, the new focus of the project was perfect. Working with Atlanta-based professional icon designer Scott Fuller, students helped craft more than forty icons to depict the school’s history, competencies, and core values.
Fuller, who had previously worked with clients like the Atlanta Hawks and Coca-Cola, made the process an iterative one, beginning by presenting ideas over Zoom. Students then worked with teachers to craft questions and gather feedback from the entire school and even members of the community. Then they shared their findings back to Fuller.
Their input made a difference, too, like for the “Strategic Thinker” icon. Originally, Fuller had chosen a Queen chess piece to represent that competency, but students found many in the community were confused by the image. Listening to their feedback and evidence, Fuller agreed and redesigned it as the Knight in chess.
The culture wall is on full display in the school’s main office as well as on two moveable banners found in learning spaces as well as backdrops during special events. Visitors can read an informational magazine to learn more about the importance of each entry, and the school recently hung student’s artwork alongside QR codes throughout the building.
The 43 icons detail everything from the school’s cyclone mascot “Tuffy” to a dragon memorializing the Douglas School, the segregated school Black students in the community attended before Elizabethton integrated in 1965. The school’s former building is now home to Elizabethton’s central offices.
“It’s all about local history and community, the past and the future,” Minton says. “This is who we’ve been, and the direction we’re going.”
This year, Elizabethton will connect students even more deeply with the school and town’s history after winning the American Library Association’s American Rescue Plan humanities grant. The $10,000 will go towards supporting paid summer internships for students to help collect and document the history of the Douglas School for the school archives.
Turning Words Into Action
The Elizabethton culture wall isn’t just a mesmerizing display.
The school community uses its content to introduce students to the culture and expectations of the school, with every 9th grader referring to the wall in “The Cyclone Experience” course, where students learn not only about history but the values of their school as well.
“It’s not only the culture of where they live but also what they are supposed to be doing here,” Campbell says about the course, which includes a project where students are assigned an icon and then research and present their findings to the class. “They are learning research skills, public speaking skills, but they are doing it through learning about the culture of the school.”
“It’s cool we have visual representation and that it ties into the rich history, and now we can teach the students, and the adults, about it, too.”
Read more about Elizabethton’s innovative work, including how they used ESSER funds as a learning tool with their students.