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Culture Shift: A Required Ingredient in School Improvement

Thursday, January 23, 2020   (0 Comments)
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by Kia Murray, Director of Academic Services

When schools are struggling, the recipe for improvement is complex. There are no quick fixes or one-size-fits-all approaches. And often one overarching problem is connected to many components of the school’s greater system. One important part of that holistic system is culture. And that applies to all schools, not just those in challenge.  

The Center on School Turnaround does provide a recipe with four key ingredients that the League’s Academic Services department follows when supporting a school’s improvement efforts. These ingredients are: 1. turnaround leadership, 2. talent development, 3. instructional transformation, and 4. culture shift. 

While listed as the fourth component, school culture is often where schools must begin their work. In their book, Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises, Deal and Peterson state, “Culture affects all aspects of a school. It influences informal conversations in the faculty lunchroom, the type of instruction valued, how professional development is viewed, and the shared commitment to assuring all students learn.”

While schools, nonprofits, sports teams, and for-profit businesses all have an eye out for the extremes of good culture and bad, it can be something that any organization can work to develop, refine, and promote. With countless essays, blogs, and books out in the world, the League has a unique perspective on culture, working directly with schools through consulting work and through professional development to develop leaders and systems to promote growth.  

In November 2018, the League partnered with Salida del Sol Academy, a K-8 dual language school in Greeley, Colorado. The school contracted with the Colorado League of Charter Schools after they were identified as Priority Improvement by the state and put on a corrective action plan by their district authorizer. Partnering with the school’s leadership team, League consultant Sabrina Hodges and Kia Murray, Director of Academic Services, created a comprehensive project plan to address the root causes identified in several external reviews. Triangulating the review data identified culture shift as a top priority and where the work began.

School leadership knew stakeholder engagement was key to implementing change. This started with the creation of a culture committee consisting mostly of teachers to lead the charge. Key levers for change were identified along with action steps and benchmarks to monitor success. 

  • Lever for Change #1 - Create Systemic Classroom Routines and Procedures   

  • Lever for Change #2 - Build Systematized Strategies for Preventing and Responding to Challenging Behaviors

  • Lever for Change #3 - Implement Weekly Culture Meetings with Leadership Team 

The work of the culture committee combined with the implementation monitoring of the leadership team in their culture meetings led to great improvements throughout last school year. Culture has continued to be a focus this school year but has shifted to staff collective efficacy and growth mindset. 

With targeted work in just one semester, the school improved their SPF rating from Priority Improvement to Improvement and were only 6 points away from a Performance rating.

If you want to learn more about the improvement efforts at Salida del Sol Academy, the League consultants facilitating this work will be presenting a session at the League’s annual conference titled Rapid School Improvement: One Charter School’s Story on Friday, March 13 8:00am-9:00am. (LINK to sessions)

Interested in partnering with the League as you undergo your own school improvement efforts? Contact us at or call us at 303-989-5356 to find out more about our services.   


The Center on School Turnaround. (2017). Four domains for rapid school improvement: A systems framework [The Center for School Turnaround at WestEd]. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Deal, T. E., Peterson, K. D. (2009) Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises 2nd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  




FEATURED Professional Development on Culture in Schools 

The actions of school leaders greatly impact a school’s culture. Dig deep into your leadership in this transformational workshop based on the work of Brene Brown and her recent book Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.


The Courage to Lead: What Does it Take?

Date: Friday, March 20  | 9:00 AM - 3:00 PM

Location: League Training Room | 4201 E. Yale Avenue, Denver, CO 80222

Cost:  $175 members | $225 non-members

Meals: A light breakfast and lunch will be provided.

Facilitated by: Sabrina Hodges

Registration Deadline: Tuesday, March 17. Event is contingent on a minimum of 6 registrants.

Description: What does it take to build brave leaders and courageous cultures that foster and promote growth and excellence? Author and leadership expert Brene Brown gives us the ultimate playbook in her newest work Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, and Whole Hearts. Daring leadership is a collection of four skill sets that are 100% teachable. These skill sets are (1) Rumbling with Vulnerability, (2) Living into Your Values, (3) Braving Trust, and (4) Learning to Rise. In this workshop, leaders and aspiring leaders will learn about these key skill sets, assess themselves and set personal goals. Then they will create a schoolwide plan for promoting and using these skills among staff and leadership to create a school culture that embraces growth and continuous improvement.