It’s All About School Culture!

It’s All About School Culture!

I have been working since 1985 on competency-based education (CBE) models to better serve over-aged and under-credited students, first as the Principal of Jobs for Youth High School in Boston, later as the founder of Diploma Plus and more recently as the founder of Schools for the Future. During my roughly 30 years of doing this work, I have tested out several hypothesis as to what the key is to starting great schools. While the schools that I have helped open have accomplished a lot, there have also been shortcomings. My team and I applied these lessons to the design and early implementation of Schools for the Future Detroit (SFFD).

One of the greatest lessons is that building an extremely strong school culture from the “get go” is absolutely necessary for success. While obviously not the only necessary component, without it very little else (e.g. blended technology, curriculum) will make a significant difference.

SFFD has been open for less than one month. While I don’t want to get overly excited about what, to-date, has been a very smooth opening, I can point to several tangible steps in opening this school that seem to have made our opening successful so far:

1. Hire the right principal and focus on the school’s vision.

No matter how great the model looks on paper, the principal must be committed to the schools’ stated vision. Additionally, the principal needs to be able to juggle the implementation balls while inspiring the staff and students to buy into the schools’ mission.

Tangible steps: During the three step principal interview process, SFF Detroit really pushed the “vision thing” with the prospective hires and then went deeply into questions about how they would go about making it a reality in the run-up to opening the school. We also asked about the candidates’ comfort level with working from a pre-designed blueprint. We made the point repeatedly that we were not looking to hire a principal to create his or her own vision.


2. Invest as much as you can in upfront staff orientation and training before you open the school.

While creating a strong school culture begins with the principal hire, it very quickly moves to how much the teachers/staff buy into the model and create a team.

Tangible steps: We paid for nearly five weeks of orientation and professional development from the last week of June to the first week of September for the new SFFD staff. It included not only on-site training conducted by SFF national trainers, but also paying staff to go to Chicago  for  training by the developers of educational software that we had purchased.


3. Keep the students at the center by understanding and implementing strong youth development strategies.

There are more students than staff and the only way to maximize success is to help students take ownership of their own learning (see SFF’s 3 big principles below)

4. Build a strong collaborative team.

During our training we constantly stressed the idea that teachers/staff are learners too; as such it is good to ask for help and not to worry about making mistakes.

Think Big (High Aspirations)

Values for Students Values for Teachers/Staff
  • Students believe that they are capable of learning at high levels; it just takes effective effort
  • Failure and difficulty is feedback that you should explore other strategies and not give up
  • Learning at SFF Detroit is collaborative; students can teach and learn from each other
  • Proficient teachers and staff help produce proficient students
  • Difficulty in helping students achieve proficiency is feedback to try another strategy, not to give up
  • Teachers and staff are not expected to be experts in everything; it’s ok to ask for help  from other staff and students

You Own It (Personalization)

For Students For Teachers/Staff
  • No one can “make” you learn—it’s up to you
  • Learning is awesome
  • Facilitate an awesome learning environment
  • Connect learning to students’ lives

24/7 (Pace)

For Students For Teachers/Staff
  • Take your education home with you
  • Accelerate to eradicate “lost” school years
  • Make world your classroom
  • Settle for nothing less than two years of growth per year in the 3 “r’s”


5. Create a schedule and structure that enables the teachers/staff to be reflective.

SFF has many moving parts that are different from a traditional approach. We hypothesized that our best chance for success was to invest considerable time for teachers/staff to be able to plan and reflect. As a result, we designed a schedule in which staff have two 70 minute periods off—one for common planning and the other for individual planning.

6. Have An Aggressive Focus on Students and Learning using data to guide the way

After school culture, we believe that the most important thing for the success of SFFD will be the clarity around our mastery standards, the data that we are using in an ongoing way to measure how students are doing, and the associated teaching & learning strategies and revisions.

Tangible steps: SFFD is using a combination of formative and summative measures. For formative, all of our modules and courses have built in interim and longer term products that teachers & students assess together using rubrics. Our developmental reading (Achieve 3000) and developmental math (Think Through Math) software also has built in formatives.  In terms of  summatives, SFFD is using a combination of the ACT Plan/Explore and the Scantron Performance Series.

While it is too soon to know how SFFD will ultimately do, we feel good about what we did to prepare for the opening. SFFD is proud to be part of the Next Generation Learning community and we look forward to learning from the other grantees.

Written by Ephraim Weisstein


  1. Ray Schleck


    Thanks for the post. Congrats on a smooth opening, can’t imagine that was easy to pull off. I’m working on another Next Gen project at Match up in Boston. We’re looking closely at what the role of a teacher is in a blended learning school. Much of the content, as you explained, comes from the software (Achieve 3000, etc). Teachers at traditional schools tend to spend huge amounts of time generating this content, but your teachers don’t have to (at least not nearly as much). So what have you found that teachers spend most of their time on? Does the software allow teachers to plan more carefully the parts of the class that isn’t on software? Are they analyzing data? Calling parents? Checking in with individual students? Would love to hear any thoughts.

  2. Here are a few quick comments. I look forward to chatting with you on the phone and then seeing you in NO next week.

    In SFF’s blended model, teachers are able to focus their attention and time toward the individualization of content and instructional practices. The base content has been developed for the students and the learning management system allows the the continuous (24/7) access that we seek. What the teachers are then tasked with is to modify, alter and better align the base content to each classroom and students’ needs. Though the base content is provided, the instructional model necessitates planning by the teachers and breaking down lesson components to the launch, investigation and performances (performance base instructional progression). This form of planning allows the teacher time to tailor instruction and provide a greater depth of feedback (both to the students and parents) as the lesson progresses. Through the management system students and teachers work cooperatively toward instructional outcomes ensuring the continuation of communication and the monitoring of performance data throughout the instructional progression.

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