This is the second in a series of posts written by David Singer and his staff at University Prep – Steele Street in which they describe their lessons in taking over and turning around a previously failing school. I describe a bit more about the series here. And David’s context setting is here.
Today, Jessica Valsechi discusses the school’s approach to adult and student culture. Jessica began her educational career as a Teach for America corps member in Charlotte, North Carolina. After finishing the corps, Jessica’s passion to transform schools led her to University Prep. At U Prep, she honed her skills as a teacher and soon became the Dean of Mathematics and later a Principal Resident. Currently, she works as part of the curriculum team, developing the network’s academic programming. She discusses what it takes to build and sustain a culture that ensures both adults and children thrive in a restart context.
The work of building a strong team started in year zero – our planning year. We started the hiring process for new teachers in December and were able to select strong candidates that were motivated by the opportunity to teach in a restart environment. During our hiring window, we also hired two teachers from the closing school who were equally passionate and excited about doing the work necessary to transform their school. By April, there was a mutual decision between the current U Prep teachers at our first campus and the network’s leadership team as to which teachers would transition from our founding campus to our turnaround campus. It was critical from the onset that all individuals joining the Steele Street team would not only be committed to our mission and vision as an organization, but honest about the amount—and difficultly—of work that would be necessary to do right by a community that had experienced years of underperformance in the quality of education.
Knowing that our staff came from different experiences, we were intentional about building a sense of team from the outset. We started in the spring by hosting dinners to build relationships amongst our staff and engaged in book talks around such texts as Grit by Angela Duckworth. We discussed the perseverance needed to launch a new school and were honest about how adaptive and flexible our team would need to be. We continued to have touch-points throughout the spring and summer months until four weeks before the school year launched when we started our summer training. At that point, we were together on a daily basis.
By the time we opened our doors, our team was strong – “Strong as Steele” as we liked to assert. Throughout the year, it was the little things that kept our team in that same positive, focused, and “can do” mindset we had intentionally established long before a child walked into the building: random coffee deliveries or pizza lunches to show appreciation, ‘love notes’ to show gratitude for small things or daily excellence, open and frequent collaboration on and sharing of lessons plans, team problem solving to support individual scholars with greater needs, and simple acts like making someone else’s copies without being asked.
A U Prep network best practice, we held daily huddles – ten minutes for the full staff each morning before the school day – focused on keeping up motivation and connectivity. On Motivational Mondays, we revisited our mission through local and national narratives and stories linked to our efforts. On Takeaway Tuesdays, we examined videos of members of our team demonstrating exemplary practices that we could all learn from. Wins Wednesdays provided a chance to celebrate the small wins that our scholars were demonstrating across all grade levels and the efforts of our adults that led to those outcomes. Thankful Thursdays provided time and space to express gratitude with our team members, our families and our children. Funny Fridays served as a time and space to share genuine and authentic stories about our kids and families that put a smile on everyone’s faces.
Our leadership team made it a priority to be present in classrooms to effectively support teachers and nurture high staff morale. This is a priority that our network believes deeply, recognizing that teachers are the number one driver for scholar success. Through weekly observation feedback cycles, data meetings, real-time coaching, constant pop-ins, and differentiated professional development sessions, teachers knew the leadership team was there to support their professional and personal growth. Tied to that development, teachers were not only able to reflect on their own successes, but to see the concrete success of their scholars and their ongoing growth. These highly intentional and robust teacher support systems resulting in consistent and visible scholar growth built momentum – a flywheel was set in motion that resulted in the group’s ability to attack and solve whatever challenges we came across. Success breeds success. Learning from and addressing previous challenges allowed us to overcome new obstacles as they arose.
When you have happy, motivated, and “team first” teachers, the natural by-product is happy, motivated, and “team first” students. During our planning year, we spent significant time and energy thinking about how we were going to roll out a brand new culture to students who have been so used to operating one way for their entire educational career. Consider a 4th grader who has experienced a school setting for five years, exiting their building in June and walking back into that same building as a 5th grader in August only to be puzzled by a dramatic change in all aspects of their school.
Our first week served as an orientation week to teach our systems, procedures, and values. In the roll out, we had to be intentional about explaining our rationale as well as making it “cool.” Children needed to “buy-in” and we knew that honesty and transparency would be essential – the curtain needed to be pulled back at every turn. We developed incentives around areas such as homework, uniform, and attendance and allowed for student choice in the rewards they earned. Further, we were highly cognizant of creating space where we could come together as a whole-school to build our community. Each Monday we launched the day with “Motivation Monday” where we discussed topics such as empathy, diversity, gratitude, and kindness, and announced any school-wide initiatives or challenges.
We ended our weeks, as we do across our network, with a Community Circle where we celebrated our successes alongside of our families, and awarded special honors for academic and character-based achievements. We award the Golden Dictionary in celebration and acknowledgement of a scholar’s efforts tied to developing a robust vocabulary. Our community leaders’ presentation honors individuals who uphold our community’s values to the fullest in each classroom. Lastly, the PREP stick is awarded to a single scholar who deeply models what it means to be a “U Prep scholar.” That individual is honored through speeches by their peers and members of our team, which illustrate the words and actions that all individuals across the school community can emulate.
Perhaps most importantly, the school community embraced an unyielding focus on growth mindset – both children and adults. We discussed how to give and receive feedback and how doing so impacted your learning. Our teachers purposely created environments where scholars and staff alike were willing to take risks and could showcase their talents. When kids feel safe and cared for, and a team does whatever it takes to support their academic and personal development, they absolutely take off.
Our staff not only built strong relationships with our children, but they also developed partnerships with our families. Starting in October of our planning year, members of our team visited the school, engaged in events, and held parent forums where families could come and ask questions, share their experiences, and get to know the team. We knew that being present and engaging with families was the first step to gaining trust in a new system with new people. During winter and spring, we engaged in more intimate conversations to continue strengthening our relationships as well as hosted several orientations. We hosted an annual holiday party for the school and ensured that as many as our team members could be present to engage and enjoy in the festivities alongside of our future families. Further, we built a system where existing U Prep families at our first campus would host Pioneer families so they could learn, from a parent’s perspective, more about our school and who we are. We launched into summer break with a family barbeque, and by the time we opened our doors in August, our new families were not so new, and had experienced a series of positive interactions with our school and staff.
Throughout the year, our staff continued to engage with families through celebrations, phone calls, conferences, and parent forums. We talked openly with our families about both our challenges and successes, while always expressing that our scholars are brilliant and we would do whatever it takes to provide the education they deserve.
Overall, in reflecting on our experience of restarting a school with a history of chronic underperformance, the culture of our adults was the driver of everything else. Ensuring our staff operated as a unified team, carrying the torch of a growth mindset, and believing that anything and everything was possible for our children and families so long as we were willing to “do the work,” was at the core of the transformation that I had the humbling privilege of leading.