Establishing and Sustaining a Culture of Excellence: The Secret Ingredient to Moving the Academic Needle with School Turnaround

Jun 17, 2016

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Melissa Jones Clarke

2014 Ryan Award Winner

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When given the task of turning around a school, the first thing that one can see, touch, feel - and definitely smell - is the school culture, whether it may be awesome or abysmal. Just sit with a group of classroom teachers and listen. As a new principal of a turnaround school, I did just that, and found that there was a genuine lack of information on school-wide initiatives, fear of the unknown, lack of intentional support, and consistently sharing the “what” but rarely sharing the “why.”

Urban school leaders must find and invest the time to establish and sustain a strong culture of excellence

Principals leading a turnaround school have a wide range of logistics to coordinate. However, while holding data talks and parent engagement activities, urban school leaders must find and invest the time to address the need to establish and sustain a strong culture of excellence. Doing this work pays off in a variety of ways: engaged employees, conducive work environment, increased focus on instructional excellence, and increased student growth and proficiency. I have found that the following strategies have worked magic across my campus.

  • The “3 C’s” Demonstrated Daily:
    • Culture (High care and concern for ALL);
    • Coaching and Collaboration (Intentionality of growing ALL faculty – teachers and support staff – and implementation of Common Core with fidelity);
    • Cultivating Academic Minds (for exceptional results and positive student outcomes)
  • Honest, Ongoing and Consistent Conversations with All Stakeholders: For example, introduce a new procedure to staff with a tone of candor and purpose: “Our work to close the achievement gap is real and sobering. Therefore, we have to offer a high quality educational program to each scholar - every day – every moment. This will only happen with a daily walk founded in a growth mindset, intentional collaboration and coaching, establishing a print rich classroom environment with developed rituals, routines, and procedures, and clarity of instructional intent. You have been hand-picked to do this – and I believe in you!”
  • Establish an Instructional Leadership Team of Teachers and Support Staff: Meet weekly to monitor the intentional accountability of your school’s shared vision and purpose. Keep the vision and purpose at the forefront of each decision made, always in the best interest of your scholars.
  • Stay focused. Be positive. It is contagious.
  • Create Offsite Team-building and Engagement Activities: A faculty that plays together – building upon the foundation of collaboration – is genuinely happy, reveals a sense of teamwork and shared accountability for the good of the group, encourages one another when necessary, and remains positive through the tough times. 

As urban school leaders, we have to fearlessly lead with each performer on our team and remind them – relentlessly – when they become resistant to change that the impossible is indeed possible. Our scholars deserve it, and we have to work together to create the culture within to thrive professionally. When you are met with their doubt about strategies to close the achievement gap, ask them: what would they do if they knew it wouldn’t fail? Their answer may be the secret ingredient to move the academic needle of the adult and student learners within your amazing school building!



Melissa Jones Clarke most recently led the turnaround effort at Willow Charter Academy in Lafayette, LA starting in 2014. Prior to this, Melissa led Atalanta Heights Charter School in Atlanta, GA. Melissa received The Ryan Award, the nation's first award for transnational school leadership, for her leadership at Atlanta Heights, a "a high-poverty, high-minority school that is high-performing with college-bound scholars". During her time as principal, students grew from 30-50% proficiency to 89% proficiency in reading.


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