Pablo Resendiz couldn’t help himself. The proud principal had to post a tweet, as the students he taught, advocated for, and collaborated with accepted their diplomas as graduates of Furr High School, an XQ School in Houston, Texas. “One of my proudest moments as an educator,” he said, “was being able to see them walk the stage as they embarked on their new journey! This work is truly all about relationships!”
This moment of success came in part from having a strong mission and culture at the school. Building a school with a strong sense of its values is one of the six XQ Design Principles that can help transform high school and ensure that students graduate ready to pursue the lives that call them.
“One of the key things that helps us make sure that we are continuing systems of equity is that we have incorporated our stakeholder’s voice, especially those that are marginalized. It’s important to empathize and to incorporate the feedback from families, students, and staff members—it helps when people feel they are part of the same team.”Eric Collazo, Principal, Washington Leadership Academy
What is a strong mission and culture?
A strong mission and culture is 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. These values permeate all aspects of the school and create a culture where learning is safe, enjoyable, and meaningful.
“School leaders and educators today need to mobilize an increasingly complex set of management skills to create and sustain schools that truly nurture student learning. A school’s mission, and the culture that develops to meet that mission, are critical for organizing practice and leading a team,” says XQ’s Head of Data, Research, and Evaluation Lauren Bierbaum. “A strong mission keeps every adult focused on what matters most—the students. And research tells us that a strong mission and culture increases adults’ longevity in their jobs; supports leaders in honing their instructional, operational, and interpersonal expertise; and fosters the types of innovative practices that are most likely to enhance student learning and development.”
Creating a strong mission and culture requires:
- A growth mindset for all learners: The school’s mission underscores a commitment to developing a growth mindset for all. This is demonstrated by the high academic expectations for all students coupled with the belief that they can master rigorous content, engage in critical thinking, work collectively, and express themselves.
- Equity at the center of the mission: Equity and anti-racism are mission priorities embedded into the school’s operational systems and structures. Adults hold learners to the same outcomes and provide equal opportunities for deeper learning. The school community engages in reflection, self-assessment, and internal auditing to uncover and eliminate all inequities.
- Shared, mission-aligned goals: Leaders, staff and even students can articulate the school mission in a clear and compelling way. The school community also shares a set of aligned, transparent, and ambitious goals. Students, teachers, leaders, and parents express excitement about the mission and commitment to nurturing a community where all learners can thrive.
- Leaders as caretakers of the mission: The leader builds trust across the school community and applies mission-alignment as a litmus test for decisions. The leader ensures decisions are made in a transparent way and that dissenting opinions are acknowledged and explored to further build trust. This creates a community where stakeholders become champions for a shared mission who are understood, supported, and empowered by leaders.
What approaches do leaders use to create a strong mission and culture?
“With such high numbers of homeless youth, such high numbers of foster youth, there’s really no other option but to create something that is gonna be different. Something that’s gonna really rethink the needs of those communities. And the work that we’re doing is really to provide equity for communities who have never seen that.”Erin Whalen, Principal, Da Vinci RISE
- Trusting, caring relationships create the ground where learning can take root. Schools with a strong mission and culture support students on their academic journey, no matter what. This can mean serving incarcerated youth, homeless students, or those in the foster care system.
- Student voice is critical in creating a strong mission and culture. To meet the needs of students truly, it’s essential to create spaces where they can voice their curiosities, concerns, and aspirations.
- Develop a coherent understanding of the school’s mission and goals across your leadership team. Coherence helps leaders focus direction, cultivate collaboration, and drive accountability.
- Engage families in the school. When families are engaged in the learning process, great things can happen. Schools that include parents and other caregivers in activities and decision-making create a culture that reinforces the importance of learning.
More resources for building a strong mission and culture are in the associated XQ in a Box module.
What does a strong mission and culture look like in action?
“The vision is for Crosstown High students to be living proof that traditional systems can be broken in ways that ultimately benefit everyone.”Ginger Spickler, Chief of Staff, Crosstown High
XQ schools have many ways to build strong cultures to support their missions. Take a look.
Onboarding new staff can be a challenge to a strong mission and culture. To ensure continuity, the team at Iowa BIG, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, developed a new onboarding plan to reflect their updated vision, mission, and values. This helps ensure that new team members understand the school’s culture, how it came to be, and how they can support it.
To engage parents and caregivers in student learning, Summit Shasta, in Daly City, California, developed Unboxed by Prepared Parents. These free monthly learning kits support learning at home and include connections to community organizations and enrichment programs.
Similarly, when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the school year, Brooklyn LAB developed messaging toolkits to share with educators across the country. Their social media messaging offers a wide range of free communication resources and templates. Their EALA messaging aims to foster equitable communication with families and students, including those with more intensive and specialized needs for whom the pandemic has been especially difficult.
How can educators get started with building a strong mission and culture?
“All staff at TAPA hold high expectations for students because they see our potential. They support and help us seek out opportunities and connections for success. The high expectations and support definitely show how much the staff cares about us.”Nia, Student, Trinity Academy for the Performing Arts (TAPA)
Building a strong mission and culture requires collaboration with school leaders, teachers, students, and families. Here are some tips for how to start.
- Believe in your students. No single factor weighs more heavily than an adult who sees the potential in a learner and provides the support and encouragement to live into it. Set high expectations, provide the scaffolding, and watch what happens.
- Pursue equity. From the images in your learning space to the materials you use, representation matters. Make sure your students see themselves reflected in your teaching. Advocate for curricula and partnerships that show students the full range of human experience and opportunity.
- Talk with colleagues about the school’s mission and goals. Foster dialogue and collaboration by discussing the mission. What’s working well? What needs adjusting? What do the students say? Bring these issues to team meetings to ensure the focus stays clear.
- Lead by example. A strong culture becomes real when everyone involved acts in harmony with the values it represents. Evaluate your contribution to the culture you want to create.
Rethink Your High School Today
We created the XQ Design Principles Rubric to support the long-term, iterative work of continuous improvement. Developed in partnership with XQ schools and the improvement experts at Springpoint, the rubric helps ambitious high schools understand where they are on the journey to excellence—and how to take practical steps to achieve their goals.
Inside the rubric, teams can review a detailed set of “dimensions of practice” indicators designed to help them place their schools on a developmental scale (from emerging to sustained), picture what success could look like for their school, and chart a path to get there.
Currently a work in progress, the XQ Design Principles Rubric will be further developed in 2022 before being translated into a fully digital format.
Explore the other XQ Design Principles.