Changing school culture: Successful strategies from a high school principal

November 20, 2019 ACSA Partner

This artcile is provided to ACSA by Brandman University, an ACSA Partner4Purpose (author: Lindsay Racen)

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Amy Belser is the principal of Bear River High School, a comprehensive public high school serving hundreds of students in the Sierra Nevada foothills community of Grass Valley. Early in her tenure as the school’s administrator she pursued her Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership at Brandman University. Her experience in the program, which has a central focus on transformational change, motivated her to take steps to improve her school culture. Find out what strategies she used to achieve this goal and how she inspired other educational leaders to implement them at their schools.     

Creating a Mission and Vision for Success

Early in her leadership journey Besler identified her core mission which was to create a “shared identity for all members of the Bear River High School community” by connecting, supporting, celebrating and challenging all students and staff.

The next step in the tranformation process was to involve her staff in creating a long-term vision for change. Through ongoing open discussion they determined that this vision centered on, “creating a school where no one ever wants to leave.” This phrase is borrowed from Phil Boyte, a national leader in school culture-building and creator of the Link Crew and Breaking Down the Walls programs for student growth and engagement. Boyte identified that a positive and sustainable school culture is grounded in the relationships that exist between the adults on campus. Principal Besler was also influenced by the work of Mark Crowley, author of Lead from the Heart: Transformational Leadership for the 21st Century, who notes that employees want meaning, happiness and significance from their work.

With this in mind, Besler and her team placed a great deal of emphasis on supporting staff, with the belief that if the adults in a school are happy and engaged then everything else will follow. This led to emarking on initiatives big and small, including transforming the staff lounge over the summer to include recreational equipment like a dart board, coffee bar and more. Another example Besler shared was a “Thankful Thursday” celebration where a cart of pastries, coffee and juice was rolled around campus to treat every single adult. As a result, “some of them were nearly moved to tears by this simple gesture of appreciation,” she says.  

Inspiring a Movement: “Lawn Chair Fridays”

Lawn Chair FridayAnother strategy Besler created for connecting her staff was called “Lawn Chair Fridays.” As the name suggests, at the end of each week staff members bring their lawn chairs out to the quad at lunch and spend some time socializing together.

“Not only is this a great way to connect and celebrate the week, but it also allows us to model the things we want our students to emulate, including engaging with their community and getting to know others who have different backgrounds and interest,” she explains. “Sometimes students pull up their chairs and join us, too!” she adds.

Amy Besler proudly mentions that Phil Boyte now shares her concept of “Lawn Chair Friday’s” with other communities as he travels throughout the United States and Canada speaking to students and staff about the importance of creating a positive school culture.

In a recent email exchange between the two, Boyte stated, “If you knew how many schools are using the idea you would be thrilled. Thousand Oaks High School in Southern California used it this week along with a number of the Sacramento area schools. Thanks for the ideas that are moving around the country!”

The concept has created such a buzz that she even received encouraging feedback from a student she had 15 years prior, who is now a teacher at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California. She told Besler that when Boyte spoke about “Lawn Chair Fridays” to her school’s staff, she was delighted to proclaim to her colleagues that she has a personal connection with the creator.

The key takeaway here is best stated by principal Besler herself, “In many ways, it seems the best ideas are the simplest ones.” She is thrilled that “Lawn Chair Fridays” have caught on and is inspired to work with her team to develop other ideas that will benefit her own school community and beyond. “Who knows? Maybe someone reading this article will start a lawn chair gathering of her own, or be inspired to create something even better that I can learn about and implement in my school community.”

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