Building School Culture and Identity

An approach to unifying students and staff with character education-focused core values

The Essential Question

It was a simple enough question, but it stumped everyone in the room.

“In three words or less, what does your school stand for?”

Gathered were teachers from each of the three grade levels in our school, educators who had been teaching in this building for decades. Feeling the need to respond, we cobbled together an answer: our middle school is a positive place that’s supportive of student needs, collegial and pleasant for teachers, with a long history of focus on whole child education. But each statement from those in the room didn’t feel sufficient and certainly couldn’t be encapsulated in three words or less.

This question and the conversation that ensued, showed that while we had a great school, we lacked a brand and an articulated set of values of what we expect of those in our school community. In other words, we lacked a cohesive identity.

This was a pivotal moment in our school and the start of an incredible journey that has made us a better school for our students and staff.

About Algonquin Middle School

Algonquin Middle School, in the Averill Park Central School District in upstate New York, was built 50 years ago as a middle school for grades 6, 7, and 8. With a stable and cohesive teaching staff and stable leadership with only five principals in those 50 years, our school serves 650 students in a suburban/rural setting with approximately 25% receiving free/reduced lunch. Since its founding, AMS has had a strong team structure and a focus on middle school philosophy.

Character Education Self-Study

In October 2016 we were approached by Dr. Phil Fusco from The Academy for Character Education at the Sage Colleges to conduct a character education self-study within our school. Dr. Fusco recognized that the staff at Algonquin were doing many great things with students, but there was no unifying connection between our school’s character development initiatives, and it seemed as though we were all pulling in many different directions.

Dr. Fusco shared “The 11 Principles of Effective Character Education” with us and led us through a collaborative process in which teachers of different content and experience levels, counselors, secretaries, principals, para-professionals, custodians, parents, and later a student group identified the strengths and weaknesses to our character education approach. It was then that he asked us the essential question. From this, our group determined that we needed to establish a theme to identify who we are as a school community.

Developing “The Warrior Way”

To create this new unifying theme, a school-wide student survey was conducted to identify the most important student behavior expectations. In addition, at a faculty meeting, teachers worked in teams to identify their most essential school-wide expectations. In an effort to engage student leadership and more fully develop these concepts, social studies teachers created a comprehensive half-day civics activity in which representatives of our student council selected the most critical aspects of a successful, collaborative community.

These concepts were then brought to our school’s shared decision-making teacher leadership team that molded three concrete principles that were ultimately shared with the entire staff for additional input and refinement. From this process our school gained a new, unifying touchstone in the Warrior Way, building off our district’s long-time mascot, the Warriors.

Bringing It to Life

If this initiative was to be successful and connect with our students and staff, it would need to be visibly present throughout the school and embedded in daily school language. To accomplish this, a teacher created a set of Warrior Way logos and posters that were distributed to all classrooms, offices, and common spaces such as the cafeteria, gymnasium, hallways, and the auditorium.

The school also rebranded several initiatives into the Warrior Way, including our students of the month program becoming Warriors of the Month and our Caught Being Great recognition becoming Caught Being a Warrior. Visitors to the school are greeted by the Warrior Way through banners on the front door, a celebratory main foyer displaying Warrior Way artifacts, posters, bulletin boards, and murals in the hallway. But it has been the small things that have made the biggest impact. Teachers put the Warrior Way logo as a part of their email signatures. Faculty meeting agendas include the Warrior Way principles as a reminder of our focus as we work together to improve our school. Students have Warrior Way stickers on their binders. The Warrior Way is emblazoned on certificates of accomplishments from the school.

Each spring t-shirts are designed and sold for no profit in an effort to build school community around the Warrior Way. And this year, a family of students at the school wanted to show their support for this work and purchased Warrior Way pencils for each student in the school.

Warrior Way Assemblies

Perhaps the most popular addition to our school culture has been the creation of quarterly Warrior Way assemblies. These assemblies are high energy celebrations of what it means to be a Warrior and highlights the Warrior Way in action in our school community. Using real life examples and scenarios, students get to visualize connections between their lives and school experiences. Each assembly recognizes student groups and achievements and features several predictable components that spotlight one of the three principles. Student musical performances, dramatic presentations, think-pairshare activities, cheers, clapping, and singing along are all major components of building this positive school community.

At each assembly an “Ultimate Warrior,” who embodies all aspects of the Warrior Way through their words and actions, is recognized for their contribution to making the school a better place. Ultimate Warriors have included students, the school nurse, custodian, community organizations, secretaries, retiring teachers, and paraprofessionals.

To extend the experience, students and staff are encouraged to wear our school colors of “blue and gold” as part of a theme day. Additionally, our school has adopted several theme songs that are now regularly played as part of the assemblies. A “We Are Warriors” chant was created by several teachers and it has become a rallying cry for the entire building.

By involving the entire school community in these assemblies the positive energy and enthusiasm for our school culture has grown exponentially. As this assembly program continues to grow, our school looks for ways to have even greater student involvement to showcase their learning and school experience.

How to Create Synergy Between School Identity & Character Education

  1. Conduct a character education self-study
      a. Engage staff in evaluating the strengths and needs of your building
      b. Establish action steps based on these strengths and needs
  2. Gather student leaders and interested staff to develop core values
  3. Brand these values with a catchy phrase unique to your school
  4. Utilize the expertise of an art teacher or graphically inclined person to make a logo
  5. Share your character education phrase publicly and often
  6. Re-brand existing student experiences into your school’s expressed values phrase
  7. Keep the values phrases alive by revisiting them in classroom discussions, school assemblies, and with all stakeholders

Continued Practice and Reflection

Embedding the Warrior Way into everyday school life has been a primary goal of teachers and staff throughout the building. Through collaborative conversations teachers continue to find ways to bring this initiative to life. This has taken many forms both across the curriculum and outside of classrooms.

This fall, students engaged in a “One School, One Book,” program. The book selected by teachers, The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelley Pearsall, draws on the Warrior Way themes of respect, effort, and self-improvement. Students engage in “Friday Follow-Up” discussions with their Morning Meeting groups, where they discuss the plot, themes, and characters’ actions, and their connection to the Warrior Way principles.

Finally, knowing how students view the Warrior Way and its vibrancy in our school community is critical to the success of our character education program. To this end, students are regularly surveyed on their knowledge of the Warrior Way and perceptions and familiarity with the Warrior Way and our school culture. As evidence of the success of this initiative, 98% of current sixth graders in October already agreed that they understood the three principles of the Warrior Way. One student described the Warrior Way as “you are appreciative of the AMS community and all who live in it.”

Back to That Essential Question

Now two years later, the same question can be asked: “In three words or less, what does your school stand for?” But now the resounding answer is: “The Warrior Way.” Consider using this essential question at your school and watch the dramatic, positive, culture building that can result.