12/22/2011 12:33 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2012

It's All About the Culture: Overlooked Key to High School Reform

A recent visit to Cleveland's East Tech@New Tech High School stopped me in my tracks. My student ambassador, Brittany, pointed out that she had the best attendance record in the school. She showed me walls depicting what students felt made East Tech special: attendance, a photo collage highlighting student responsibility and trust and walls that were decorated with upcoming graduates. East Tech shares a campus with a traditional high school with the same types of students, but distinctly different outcome. One of the striking differences? Seeing firsthand what is possible when a high school reverberates with positive culture, with school-wide norms. We're not talking about rules for certain students in selected classrooms. And I thought to myself -- why can't this be considered normal? What if this type of positive behavior was expected of EVERY student, EVERY day, in EVERY school?

We adults talk frequently about education reform that is tied to new technology, virtual classes, teacher effectiveness, and individualized student learning. I think we overlook the importance of culture. Working to establish a school culture that emulates the best practices found in highly functional work environments can lead to students acquiring valuable skills. I have seen school cultures that encourage and foster creativity, productivity, collaboration and personal responsibility. Building a culture that empowers students leads them not only to feel responsible for themselves, but also to develop awareness and care for other students in their school, and frequently to have an affinity for students well beyond their local community.

New Tech High in Odessa, Texas comes to mind. This is a newly established school where students "hit the wall" in the first few months while attempting to adjust to the rigor of a new school environment with high expectations for every student. To encourage the Odessa students, the Principal, Adrian Vega, asked for support from other high schools in the New Tech Network. The students at Manor New Technology High School 375 miles away in Manor, Texas, responded.

The Manor students, with the encouragement of their Principal, Steve Zipkes, produced videos designed to support the Odessa students. In a fun and informal way, the Manor students shared their experiences with the Odessa students and helped them realize that what they were going through was a normal part of the process. A pretty simple, but revolutionary concept: students helping students.

What happens when you eliminate bells, hall passes, whistles and some of the rules only found in schools and prisons but never universities or work places? A culture can develop that is filled with an appreciation for the joy of work, along with fun and caring for others. I've witnessed culture present in schools that produces students ready for rigorous and competitive challenges in college and career. That's the "adult" view from 10,000 feet. If you ask students what culture means you will hear them say it is the feeling of being cared for and trusted. If you ask the principal, culture is the feeling students experience of being seen and heard, of mattering. Ryan Durr, Principal at East Tech, remarked that his students felt palpable pride which translated into deep engagement with teachers and peers. Positive culture also leads to a dramatic decline in behavior and discipline problems. When teachers aren't spending the majority of their day dealing with behavior issues, more time is available to help nurture the growth of a strong work ethic, community involvement, global awareness, collaborative skills and respect.

What do teachers and administrators do when they no longer need to be disciplinarians? Among other things, they also directly benefit from a professional culture where collaboration, respect and creativity are the norm. Teachers learn to "model the model," meaning that adults interact the same way students interact.

"Staff and students have ownership over the school and what happens in it daily! Students get to participate in making decisions for their school and feel as if they are truly a part of how the school operates. They feel as if what they think really matters. Because students are more connected to their learning, we are seeing less discipline problems. And fewer behavior issues lead to greater student success," said Christine Richard, social studies teacher at East Tech.

When we treat students with respect and high expectations, they respond by demonstrating maturity and respect for others. As the holiday season approaches and the year comes to a close, this might just be the right time to shine the spotlight on culture as part of our education reform conversations. Could be a great way to start the New Year!