When people think about “school culture,” most people immediately think sports: students cheering on the football team, wearing school jerseys, spending Fridays at pep rallies and games. Or, they think of a school’s history: the long legacy of people who have graduated from that school and gone on to success.
Thirteen years ago, when Omar Wandera helped found Leadership Public Schools (LPS) Hayward, his school had no legacy and no sports team. So he had the unique opportunity to create the culture from scratch.
“We had to figure out how to distinguish ourselves, how to make our brand mean something,” said Wandera, “So we attached ourselves to academics.”
Create tradition and ritual around school values
Instead of relying on athletics or school history, Wandera defined his school’s culture through the values he wanted each student to embody in order to succeed in school and life. In order to keep students motivated, Wandera gave careful attention to creating ceremonies, traditions, and school spaces that would make students excited to be part of a learning community.
“I didn’t want kids to just show up to school and then go home. I wanted kids to leave school feeling like they got an experience, like high school meant something special.”
When LPS Hayward students come through the door of their first class every morning, teachers ask them, “Why are you here?”
They respond “To learn.”
“So what does it take?”
“Respect, responsibility, commitment.”
Marco Campos, a senior at LPS Hayward, said he appreciates this ritual and the message it sends about his teachers: “Right from the beginning of that moment, they set the bar high. I think it shows us how love and their high expectations are exemplified.”
These high expectations are being met: eight out of ten low-income Latino students at LPS Hayward are on grade level in English, compared to just three out of ten low-income Latino students across the Bay Area. This qualified them for our Top Schools list for the third year in a row.
Wandera believes it’s the school’s strong emphasis on values that encourages students to achieve these results.
“Every single person who has graduated from this school has said those exact words,” he said, “You say that for 180 days, for four years in a row, at some point you’re going to start internalizing those things. You’re going to realize that the things that are important are all connected to this.”
Wandera embedded ritual in as many details of the school as he could. For example, instead of handing out school t-shirts to incoming ninth graders on their first day, Wandera gives them out one-by-one to each student throughout the course of the year when he feels they’ve earned it by showing the school’s values in action.
Weekly community meetings are another opportunity to reinforce and celebrate the school’s values. Each Friday at the end of the school day, the entire school comes together to share news, play games, watch skits, debrief current events, and reflect again on the school’s mission. Once a month, students also have space within the meeting to provide feedback to administration about what’s working and not working within the school.
At the end of each meeting, students also recite the school chant:
“We are the present. We are the Scholars that scholars admire. We are the leaders that leaders emulate. We shatter all obstacles without wavering commitment. We are the future. We are respectful, we are responsible, we are committed, we are scholars, we are leaders, we are royals.”
At every community meeting, staff members also unveil the “student of the week.” One student from each grade is crowned on stage in front of the entire school, given a button, and publicly praised by teachers and other students for demonstrating the schools values.
Wandera says traditions like these help create a culture of “positive peer pressure” among students: “The kids want to do well because they realize what is celebrated.”
Create spaces for vulnerability
But school leaders also believe that the public vulnerability shown at these meetings also presents students with a radically different image of what high school community can look like.
“I think being able to see a school that has 600 high schoolers in one room, not in a raucous rally, but in a reverent moment of reflection on who we are and who we want to be, and sharing positive feelings about each other in front of others — I think a lot of people just think that’s not possible,” said school Principal Michael De Sousa.
He recalls a community meeting last week when they brought a male student on stage and had two male students from the audience praise him. “It’s countercultural to see men saying this in front of other men, saying how much I appreciate how kind you are and how hard-working you are.”
Teachers model this kind of vulnerability constantly. Campos recalls a tradition some teachers have of sharing their personal story on the first day of school, and says it motivates him to achieve: “I think knowing that they have been able to overcome those challenges and succeed in life really gives me hope and belief that I can ultimately achieve those goals and be successful in life as well.”
School leaders at LPS Hayward prioritize creating space for moments and traditions like these. While other high-achieving schools focus single-handedly on academics, they understand the crucial role culture plays in the school’s academic success.
“A school can be hyper-loving and do things to make kids feel included and still get most of their students be eligible to go to four year college. Those two things are not mutually exclusive,” said De Sousa.
Hold high expectations for both academics and character
97% of the class of 2017 graduated having completed the course sequence required by the California State University System. 99% of the class of 2017 attends a two or four-year college. Though school leaders take pride in these results, they also make clear that their mission goes way beyond them. For De Sousa, holding his students to “high expectations” means so much more than simply meeting learning standards.
“We’re not focused on creating people that are just going to get a job, make more money, and become a part of the system as it exists. We’re trying to create people who are going to have true purpose in their lives,” said De Sousa, “We ask our students ‘Why do you come to school? How do you want to live in the world? How do you want to start your family?’”
But when a school focuses not only on the short-term wins of test scores and college admissions, but the longer race of nurturing students with values, how does a school leader know they’ve succeeded?
A few weeks earlier, Wandera sat on a panel interview for a counseling position opening at the school. The person interviewing for the job: a former LPS Hayward student who graduated in the school’s first class. The student had been in Wandera’s advisory.
“Every single question that was asked, he knew the answer. And he knew it well. It was the best interview I’d ever sat in,” said Wandera, “The opportunity to see a 14-year-old turn into a 27-year-old man…I saw that. I literally saw this transformation of this kid, who’s now sitting in this interview, and he’s killing it. When it came the time for me to ask questions, I didn’t know what to ask. He’d already fulfilled everything that I could have possibly asked for.”
What Counts: Quick tips from the LPS Hayward team
Emphasize school connectedness and make time and space for it
- Freshman retreat- As freshman, students begin the year with a three-day freshman retreat at a nearby university. All staff attends, and freshman meet their advisories, the group of students with whom they will spend the next four years. The school sees this retreat as the chance to lay the foundation for the values and culture the students will encounter in school.
- Advisory– Students stay in the same advisory group during all four years of high school. Teachers all implement a clear, purposeful curriculum for Advisory provided by the school and based on grade-level needs.
- Student government – LPS Hayward has created a thriving student government that helps students build leaderships skills while feeling included in school decision-making. Almost twenty percent of students at LPS Hayward participate in student government.
- Peer-led classrooms- Several teachers allow students to volunteer to teach a class for a day. Students create the class agenda and lesson, and get an opportunity to model the character and values of their teachers.
Create a college-going culture
- College Tours: Each year, students take tours of prestigious colleges around the country, including historically black colleges and universities. The school budgets for 80% of the cost and fundraises the rest. All students can apply to attend for free. Wandera believes this helps students “see what it feels like to be a success” and feel a sense of belonging in a college-environment. “I think a lot of time, we talk about college like this mythical place that is off in the distance. So I thought, what if I unveil that a little bit? What if — in ninth grade — we take you to UC Berkeley and let you walk around in their campus, and let you feel what it feels like to be a college student.”
- Public celebration of college acceptances: When students get accepted into college, their name and photo gets posted on a banner with the rest of their class. “If every student that comes in or is currently here can look up and see all these people have been part of a legacy of greatness, that means they too are part of the legacy of greatness,” said Wandera, “The ceremony of that and the mystique of that has to be created.”
This profile explores one of the six pillars of our World-class Schools Framework. Learn more here.