From Impressions to Details: Three Signs of a Good School Culture

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We are proud to feature this guest post by Oscar Ortiz Duarte as a resource to help parents identify schools that have a positive school culture. Mr. Ortiz has also written for us about classical education, and we encourage you to read part one and part two of that series.

For many schools across Texas, decision season is one of the most exciting times of the year. Taking place in the spring, it is a three-month period characterized by parents signing up in droves for school tours. This means that a school will host hundreds of parents within the span of a few weeks, all of them energetically coursing through the veins of the campus. And although the individual details of each visitor is impossible to remember, it doesn’t take long for school staff to recognize their most salient features: at my school, we would categorize them as the eager faces, the inquiring faces, and, my favorite—precisely because they always gave me a chance to show off the school the most—the skeptical looking brows.

The Reasons Why Families Are Taking School Tours

Although families have various reasons for switching schools, the truth is that parents will rarely leave the school they love. Circumstances have to be so dire for a family to opt to leave. In some cases, a job change or military service uproots a family, but these instances are rare, representing less than two percent of all visitors. 

The reality is that families join school tours because they have been deeply disappointed  elsewhere. Eager-faced families will show signs of emotional trauma indicating a history of abusive treatment from teachers or administrators. Among these are our special education and 504 families, as well as families with very gifted children.

Following our eager-faced families, inquiring-faced families are simply looking for a more challenging academic program for their children. You can learn a lot from this group regarding the state of education in other schools, namely: most schools are no longer teaching children how to read or count, these same schools rarely send any reading material home, and math homework amounts to less than twenty minutes of practice a week.

A third—and very large—group of visitors are my skeptics, the parents whose children have been bullied. Prevailing “wisdom” will tell you that  bullying cases vary in severity and that parents have become too “sensitive” to their children facing adversity at school. According to this reasoning, this would explain (away) the large number of parents showing up to our doors and not necessarily prove that bullying has become the norm at most schools. In my opinion as someone who has managed not just children but also adults in the workplace, I’ve witnessed how the slightest misunderstanding between peers can lead to a toxic work environment, affecting the well being and hence performance of even levelheaded adults. If this is true for my colleagues, I don’t see why it cannot be true for children. Good principals recognize that whatever the degree of persecution the children face, a classroom where children do not feel safe means an unhealthy learning environment, leading otherwise healthy children to depression and various forms of self-harm.

Forming Impressions on School Tours

So besides being a hectic three-month period, school tours also create a sense of high expectations: parents secretly hope to find the pearl of great price. They follow their tours in procession, walking prayerfully through the halls and will get excited when they are allowed to see a real class in action. Most tours last close to one hour; all of them have very similar structures: the playground (no tour skips the playground—what better way to show that the children are happy?), the empty gym (how else could you display the fully outfitted athletic program?), and the state-of-the-art cafeteria. Parents get to see all the pre-scheduled perks of the school, usually guided by a high-energy, charismatic guide, ending the tour on a high note of easy-to-answer questions.

The problem with these tours is that, like a first date, everyone wants to show their best attributes and downplay their flaws. We all know that appearances can be deceiving, and for parents that are new to the process, this makes catching the red flags challenging. Similar to a first date, what parents should be looking for is character, not looks. When applied to a school, this means looking for a strong school culture: the habits and practices the teachers and staff all engage in to ensure a vibrant and happy community. 

The Details that Reveal School Culture

In this blog post, I’d like to give you some insider tips on how to spot the good culture from the bad one, how you can do this either through a tour or a few well positioned questions. As you read this, keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list—it is a compass, one that will make you a better “dater” of school options—and one that will hopefully alert you to the tell-tell signs of a toxic culture.

You Want to Witness the Cafeteria Culture

Nothing is more revealing than cafeteria culture. Using the above analogy of dating, this is tantamount to a surprise visit to your date’s kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom. You can tell a lot about a person as well as a school culture by what you can find.

Is the school organized? Is there a procedure for entrance, exit, and engaging the children? Is it chaotic? Does the staff need to raise their voices or scream to regain control? What is the level of supervision? Is there assigned seating? How about cleanliness? Are the children required to pick up and clean after themselves? Are the students taught to be considerate of others? Are they practicing community virtues? Or, are they careless and expect the poor janitor to put in her work? Do the students even know the janitor’s name? Or do they call her names and make fun of her accent?

Excellent schools take all this and more into account, because they have devoted a great deal of effort to developing very strong procedures that keep the children safe and offer them an ordered environment. More importantly, they regard the lunch room as an extension of the classroom and therefore utilize it to teach children table manners and social etiquette.

Great schools recognize that this time of day should be leveraged to drive home what is being taught in the classroom when it comes to kindness and consideration towards peers. For this reason I can’t stress enough how important this time is and how much it needs to be supervised. At bad schools, this is the time when children are exposed to poor language choices, bad habits, pornography, destructive behavior and influences, etc. Thus when parents ask me, why are my children returning to home worse than when they were dropped off? The answer is usually the cafeteria culture.

A school that disregards the cafeteria is a school that doesn’t really care about moral formation, or even safety, no matter how much they say or market themselves as a safe place. My recommendation to parents is to schedule their tour around their child’s proposed lunch time. For example, if you have a fifth grader, it won’t help to see the first grade lunch period. Make sure to match the correct lunch time to their grade. If the school you wish to visit does not allow you to make your own tour schedule (some schools are more restrictive than others), don’t worry, there are other ways to tell a good school from a bad one. 

You Want to Witness Hallway Transitions

Ninety percent of every school tour will take place in the school hallways, as parents transition from place to place throughout the school. So it should surprise you how little of that time is spent seeing how students interact with each other, how students treat their teachers and vice versa, and how teacher and teacher get along. So to effectively gauge the culture of a school, I recommend families stall the tour in the hallways. Tour guides will generally want to usher you away from student transition periods. But these transitions, similar to cafeteria culture, can be the most revealing of the school’s health.

Are the students screaming and running in the hallways? Is there trash strewn everywhere? Do students care to pick trash up? These kinds of misbehavior usually indicate that the faculty and staff do not care enough to set behavior expectations outside of the classroom, or worse, it could mean that the administration does not support the teachers in their effort to manage student behavior, resulting in a lack of enthusiasm from teachers for correcting misbehavior. The consequence being that a free-for-all attitude begins to develop among the students at these transitions where children can find themselves in highly dangerous bullying situations, highly inappropriate exposure to visual materials, grooming, sexual predatory behavior, drugs, or children simply feeling lost, unseen, or insignificant in the shuffle of the transition period.

Check to see how many adults are in the hallways during transitions. Are the teachers excited to be there? Are they greeting the students? Are they engaging the students in good and stimulating conversations?

Pay attention to how the students respond (or react) to your presence: Do they recognize and greet you? Do they bump into you and don’t even care to express an apology? Again, this behavior is a sign that the adults think of schooling more as a perfunctory daily exercise, a career, a paycheck. Think to yourself: if students treat adults in this manner, imagine how they treat their peers and worse, how they treat smaller and easily targeted children.

Also, be alert to what the students are discussing as they walk past you. Are they having a lively conversation about the material just covered? At great schools, children show an eagerness for their next class, avoiding the tendency to stall at their locker, generally already prepared for two or three classes in advance. At great schools students avoid creating a ruckus, showing consideration for those around them, greeting adults and being proactive about engaging their teachers in conversation. All this is possible at great schools because the leader, teachers and staff prioritize and then incentivize this behavior in their students, setting a standard for all aspire to, creating peaceful environments that are fertile for learning. 

You Want to Study Hallway Decor and Ask Questions

If stalling fails, then take note of what you see in the hallways. Keep in mind that school hallways are easy to dress up. Children’s art covers the walls, painting a picture of perfect happiness (in a separate blog, I discuss how to look for rigor in student work that is displayed on the walls). Nevertheless, poor leaders with mismanaged schools don’t realize how much they reveal through what they allow to be placed on the school walls.

Do the walls have a carefully curated collection of famous art that would expose children to more learning? Is walking the halls instructional and edifying? Good leaders think of every space in the school as learning opportunities.

How about the decor: Is there a clear pattern in the school’s decor? Or is it a hodgepodge of random flyers, posters, and items? A good leader with an eye for order is carefully involved in what goes up and stays up on the walls.

What activities and lessons does the school prioritize? What awards does the teaching staff emphasize? Are the awards and honors a student receives for academic and character accomplishments? Paying attention to the walls will allow you to see how and to what degree the school is committed to a healthy discipline program where incentivizing positive behavior is the norm as opposed to punitive approaches.

If you are the parent of a high schooler, the walls will speak to you about the life of the school: are there clubs? How many? Are they mostly social? Or are they designed to further develop the strengths of your child? What things matter to the teachers, since behind every project or club there is a faculty member leading the project? Do they care for academics at this school? Or political activism? If activism, will these activities bolster the chances of your student to succeed and be happy in life? To get into a university? To be hired by their dream job?

Lastly, are all the programs displayed on the walls suicide, pregnancy, and depression prevention programs? Why are these programs available anyways? Is the school suffering from a crisis of drop out rates, crime, bullying and pregnancies? Let me be clear, great schools will and should offer counseling; however, the primary method used by great schools of helping students is by providing enriching activities that add meaning to their students’ lives.

In other words, at great schools, you will see on the walls a high-quality selection of well-done activities that are geared towards learning. (There is a caveat to all this, of course, and that’s the fact that much can be hidden behind glamorous projects and exciting sounding clubs. So use this metric prudently.) In the end, the key takeaway of this insight is that school walls are a reflection of the school staff’s priorities and values. You will want to carry a notepad with you as you explore the halls and carry a pen or pencil to jot down your questions to ask at the end of the tour.

    Questions to Discover School Culture

    So you’ve made it to the end of your tour, and the unsuspecting tour guide plans to wrap up the visit without any hiccups. Asking some of the pointed questions mentioned above will offer you otherwise hard to discover insights about the school. For this reason, I’d like to offer parents a few last questions that can help remove the veil:

    • How often is the principal in the classrooms?
    • How often are teachers evaluated and what does the process look like?
    • What three books does the principal and his staff think are essential for children to read and why?
    • Who is in charge of discipline?

    In a separate blog, I will explore each of these questions in depth. In the meantime, with these initial guidelines, you are ready to tell apart the wheat from the chaff and start selecting high performing schools for your child.

    Oscar Ortiz Duarte School Mentor classical education

    Charter Moms Chats

    Oscar Ortiz Duarte, MLA, CEO and Superintendent of Heritage Classical Academy,  joins Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on March 28, 2022 at 4:00 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

    Oscar Ortiz Duarte is the CEO and Superintendent of Heritage Classical Academy in Houston, Texas. Oscar has devoted his career to classical education and over the course of ten years has gone from the classical classroom, to Head of School, to CEO/Superintendent. He is known for being a passionate advocate for various classical charter organizations, lending his assistance and expertise to all. With an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in the Liberal Arts, Oscar is well-versed in classical themes bringing his knowledge into every new endeavor. Originally from Honduras, Oscar’s vocation has always been creating access to classical education to diverse and disadvantaged populations believing that the true, the good, and the beautiful paves the way for all to lead flourishing lives.

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