Posts Tagged school culture

Graduating From High School With Great Work Habits

Published by — At this school students take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.

“Aaaaah, someone let the chickens out.”

Melissa Hall, Vice Principal of Greene Charter School in W. Greenwich, RI, has been keeping an eye out the window behind her desk while she and others were answering my questions.  A staff member looks up from her work in the school’s cramped administrative office and offers to deal with it.  Pausing a moment, Hall says, “No… Not yet.  There are kids out there.  Let’s wait to see if they handle it.”

Clearly, the 9-graders responsible for tending to the school’s chickens got distracted and had an oops.  Chickens, compost and a garden are integral to Greene’s focus on the environment.  Each staff member heads up a “crew” of 15 students who meet daily, at least, and together they steward their local eco-system while learning to be a team.

After a bit, Hall turns her back to the window, pleased to report that the escaped poultry were back in their coop.  At no point were the adults particularly fussed about the problem.  They were on it, if need be, but far better to let the kids have a minor panic about their carelessness.  Natural consequences are great teachers.  Adults do kids no favor by jumping up to fix things for them before they have had a chance to make things right themselves.

This is huge.  And, as Head of School Deanna Duncan points out, it takes patience and gobs of attention to cultivate an atmosphere of accepting responsibility.  Many parents and teachers struggle mightily with just getting the kids to do their school work, never mind doing service in the community or turning compost.  But the Expeditionary Learning (EL) approach that Greene has adopted believes that “We are crew, not passengers.”  Adults and students alike are “strengthened by acts of consequential service to others.”  They have jobs and obligations for their mutual benefit.  They’re in it together, and they’re not passive.

But what’s even huger, to my mind, is that Greene and their EL design consultants have not only brought back from the near-dead, but enhanced one of my all-time favorite educational innovations: “advisories.”  Back in the late 1980s, the seminal work Turning Points insisted that public schools “personalize” education.  That horribly impersonal word referred to having small groups of students regularly hang with an adult to ensure that every kid was known well by at least one adult in the building.  Advisories were designed to counter the lack of attention kids were getting at home and in their communities.  So-called “factory-model” schools just replicated kids’ starvation for healthy attention, and in many ways made it worse.  Private schools have always had some form of advisory to make good on their promise to give “personal attention” to the student.

Advisories seem like a well-duh of education.

Sadly, these days, many schools that still schedule advisory time allow teachers to waste the time by letting the kids do their homework, talk or text.  At Greene “Crew” has a curriculum of its own designed to teach students Habits of Work (HOW), including giving them tasks they have to figure with their team.  The Crews stay together for 4 years, so if you’re not getting along, you’d better learn how to.  These behavioral expectations, the HOW, are spelled out in detail.  Students learn both the sort of chore-related reliability and good ‘tude habits that everyone needs to keep a job.  But math and literacy are also woven throughout.  One goal states:  “I can demonstrate basic financial math to promote my understanding of our economic system.”

The over-arching questions of Crew are:

* Who am I?

* How am I doing?

* Who do I want to be?

The habits are graded according to two big categories.  Students can get straight “A”s in their academic subjects, but if they blow their performance on HOW, privileges and choices are reduced.  If students fail either of the HOW grades, they’ll need to do 30 hours of community service over the summer.

So, for example, Jamiel, a senior from Johnston, says, “I had big trouble with the math.  Math is everywhere; it’s part of everyday life.  If you can’t do math, you can’t do much.  So I had to have tutoring over the summer.  But here at Greene, we have this “yet” thing.  I can’t do this YET.  You can’t say ‘I can’t,’ but you can say ‘I can’t do that yet.’  So I work with being in the moment with the work.  I’m growing a positive mindset.”

Crews explore colleges together and help one another with the applications.  They act as a peer-accountability system that helps emerging adults mature into habits of self-control and self-maintenance that are at least as important as academics when starting out post-high-school.

Duncan says, “Our students know what it means to learn the good habits that will help them be successful out in the world.  We intentionally spend as much time focused on climate and culture as on academics.  Students need to take ownership of their behavior as well as their learning.  We all have to be responsible to our community.”

Including those wanton chickens.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.


, , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

‘Our School Culture Kicks Butt’

Published by — “The kids can tell we’re setting them up for success.”

Like many urban teens, Jessica Coello was obviously smart and capable, but totally turned off from school.  When she was in grade, thinking about high school, someone suggested she visit Blackstone Academy Charter School — recently recognized as 1 of 12 schools “Commended” by the state.

Blackstone’s Open House was love at first sight.  At the time, she couldn’t say why, exactly, but now she says that its atmosphere was “just so personal.  Students know their teachers on a personal basis.”

She applied.  But no.  On average, over 200 students apply for 45 ninth-grade seats.  She applied again sophomore year.  Again, no luck.  So for two years she sleepwalked through a fairly typical comprehensive urban high school.  She tested into honors classes, “but I fell under the radar.  I admit I didn’t do my best.  I just know that we were super-antsy to get out of there the second the bell rang at 3:00.”

Third time’s the charm.  She entered Blackstone as a junior and almost overnight, this drag-butt student came alive academically.  “The minute I got here, I was on the honor roll.  I learned graphic design; I participated in class; I was making movies, winning awards, and starting my own  photography business.  It was the teachers.  They opened up whole new worlds I never knew of.”

Mind you, vibrant schools can’t thrive on great teachers alone, but also engaged students, who’ve caught the excitement and possibilities of mastery.  Adults and kids alike feel part of a community that’s cooperating with academic expectations and pursuing personal passions, such as Coello’s love of cameras.  Great school culture allows everyone to teach and learn at their max.

Blackstone students do senior projects, which involve applying cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge to a real-world product of the kid’s choice.  Students test-drive skills in a protected environment, confronting whatever lessons lie in wait for them.

For hers, Coello asked to become the teaching assistant in Elizabeth Schibuk’s “Film for Social Change” course.  This win/win situation gave Coello more time and mentoring with a mentor teacher.  And Schibuk got Coello’s impressive tech skills in exchange.  The class identified and researched three social issues dear to their hearts that became short movies, with Coello’s expertise.  Coello also wrote a senior thesis about film’s power to teach about social issues.

But she didn’t ask just to make movies, she also asked to teach.  Therein lay some big, nasty surprises.

“I was responsible for the technology portion of the class — how to film, what’s a green screen; how to use it; how to use angles and edit footage.  But teaching was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had in my life.  And the most difficult part of my project.  Teaching is about having the ability to get them (the students) interested in what you’re saying and then to retain the information.  You would think that the hardest part would be the editing process, but they got that.  I had real trouble with some students getting their work done.  I really could feel that I hadn’t had the classes about how to teach.  Having them look at you real bored and not understanding was soooo nerve-wracking.”

Are you feeling just a bit vindicated, teachers?  I would be.

But Schibuk is very familiar with the rude awakenings lurking in senior projects and coached Coello through the challenges to a happy, sunset ending.  The Cable Car Cinema agreed to showcase the class’s three films —  on immigration, bullying and stereotyping — to a house packed with staff, family and friends.  A dream come true.

Blackstone’s students are 86 percent eligible for subsidized lunch (a poverty indicator).  Another senior is going to Wesleyan on a free ride.

I asked Head of School Kyleen Carpenter how they work their magic.  She sat up straight and all but barked, “No one wants to hear this, which is why I really want to say: Our school culture kicks butt.  Everyone’s here to learn; no one’s here to screw around.  And we will achieve at a high level, whatever that takes.  I used to have a line outside my door with kids who said f. u. to a teacher, or did something wrong.  No more.  You can’t buy culture; you can’t make it.  You have to have consistent expectations in every single class, and to celebrate achievement.”

Most incoming Blackstone students go first to a summer program where, frankly, the cultural indoctrination starts.  To be a happy, productive community, everyone has to leave street habits at the door; no calling each other ugly names, disrupting or lashing out — not kids; not adults.  Carpenter says, “As corny as it sounds, a great culture is a commitment to relentless happiness. Also, throw ‘no excuses’ out the door. These kids have plenty of excuses.  But we help them address and remove those excuses so they can get to work. We do not pretend they don’t exist.  No, it’s not all roses and puppy dogs.  But we talk about the problems and don’t hide them.”

And so Coello got off the more-traveled urban path to nowhere.  She’s going to college to study business.

Carpenter says, “Most importantly, the kids can tell we’re setting them up for success.”

We’ll know education is working when all schools can say that.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

, ,

Leave a comment