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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Reestablishing positive school culture after the pandemic
Strategic leadership as the school year begins
By Steve Amaro & Frank Beede | September | October 2021
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The 2021-22 school year could be the most pivotal any educator has experienced in their lifetime. Students will return to schools in a world forever changed by the pandemic. Undoubtedly, students have learned a variety of survival strategies in terms of how to work in isolated remote environments, use technology to complete assignments and be more sensitive to safety concerns, but many students have also missed out on the social and physical connections they could have made in a non-pandemic year.
School leaders today have an incredible challenge and opportunity to set the stage for school community success by creating a dynamic reopening that focuses on four key factors: 1) Emphasizing safety first, 2) Designing and implementing inclusive activities to strengthen community and interpersonal skills, 3) Creating opportunities for staff to explore curriculum and make it applicable, and 4) Practicing visible and approachable leadership that focuses on all stakeholder success.
Emphasize safety to increase academics
Any school year should begin with an emphasis on safety. Families, students and staff want to know that they are going to be in a place where their safety is the highest priority. For some schools, this may encompass reviewing or adapting safety protocols. Students may need to review what district and site rules are regarding face mask coverings, personal hygiene and protocols regarding leaving class to go to an office. These may seem like small details, but creating a well-informed community alleviates the possibility of questionable outcomes.
Paramount for families is to understand what they can do in terms of accessing the campus and where to drop off or pick up their students. We now educate in a time where visitors on a campus need to be quickly identified and vetted so that the entire school community remains safe. Visitors on sites should be easily identifiable by some sort of pass or badge so that students and staff can quickly scan who should and should not be on campus. Such attention to detail can lower anxiety levels and allow students and staff to focus on their academic and social environment without the threat of harm or harassment.
Although nobody wants to experience crises such as natural or chemical disasters, schools should engage in purposeful evacuation drills within the first three weeks on campus. All adults on campus need to know what is expected of them and the steps to take in an emergency. Students need to know what is expected of them, so they are better prepared to appropriately respond to dangerous situations. In addition, if students know what to do in a disaster, they can play a pivotal role in the collective intelligence of a school community as they can support their peers and even help substitute personnel better understand and clarify student and adult expectations.
Running initial safety drills sets the tone that the school places importance on student and staff safety. School leaders may want to publicize emergency drills to the media as such communication and transparency fosters positive public relations. Local fire and police authorities also could be invited to review and evaluate the effectiveness and make suggestions for improvement sending a clear, unified message that the entire community cares about safety.
Share school culture that values all cultures
While the student body’s academic standing should be a key barometer of overall school success, it cannot be the sole focus. As students transition back into the physical classroom environment, it is imperative that the social-emotional well-being of the student is accounted for and supported. Providing students the opportunities to reconnect with the shared values and established culture of their school will help build the foundation for future academic achievement.
During the first few weeks of the school year, additional attention should be directed toward student reconnection with the school. Sacrificing a few instructional minutes early on in the year for the multitude of benefits it will bring later is well worth the time and effort. Consider hosting a school-wide assembly or all-day activity to draw students back into the fold of school culture. These activities should be fun, inclusive, and operate through the lens of the characteristics you want your students to embody.
Clubs and athletic programs on campus are also an excellent way for students to reconnect with the school and each other. Remember that most students have had minimal interactions with their peers for over a year. Providing students the opportunity to build positive relationships with each other through school-sponsored clubs will lead to stronger bonds between the students and the school.
Registration and orientation activities for the upcoming year should be inclusive for both students and their families. School clubs may want to participate to promote their programs and recruit new members. In the first three weeks of the new school year, students should also have additional exposure to clubs and activities during the school day to give them additional opportunities to make connections. Hosting a club carnival at lunch or an assembly where students can go to booths and join clubs that they identify with can be a great way to help students connect to the campus. Furthermore, such activities are a great way to recruit new teacher advisors to bolster and expand club offerings on campus and bring newfound energy, especially considering what schools have experienced in the past year.
Set foundation of connection to explore curriculum
Continuous student engagement is paramount to a successful classroom but can be challenging to maintain even in the best of circumstances. In the aftermath of the worldwide pandemic and the natural disconnect it has created for the global community, it is crucial to connect students to the relatable curriculum we wish to employ in the classroom if they are to be successful.
Using surveys to discern student interest can help teachers focus on how to better connect the curriculum to what students want to learn. Giving short interest surveys at the beginning of the school year and tying lessons into class subject topics can generate collective student interest and set scaffolds for high levels of achievement. Essays, projects, presentations, word problems, etc., that incorporate the data from these surveys can increase participation in the classroom and ownership amongst students.
Prominent issues of the day can also reveal a treasure trove of meaningful topics to draw students in and increase civic and academic engagement. Tackling real-world problems within the classroom as they relate to the curriculum provides students the opportunity to reflect and express themselves in a safe and nurturing environment.
Visible and approachable leadership
Students and staff want to be in places where they feel valued and appreciated. It should come as no surprise that one of the keys to demonstrating care is for adult leaders to become a visible presence on campus; however, visibility also needs to be combined with an approachability to maximize effectiveness. Something as simple as being in the quad with students and engaging them in greetings and conversation can go a long way in showing physical and responsive leadership.
Making time in the mornings and afternoons to be out at the entrances and exits of campus is equally important. A short conversation with the school crossing guard or interaction with the parents outside visibly shows the students and staff that everyone is on the same team working for student success.
Modeling appropriate greetings is also important. Students are always observing and watching how the adult leaders engage with others. If students see their teachers and administrators greet and engage with everyone, they have an opportunity to see that everyone has value regardless of the physical, intellectual and possibly psychological challenges we all face.
Although the hope is that we will never again face a time when schools will have to engage in distance learning practices, we can and should prepare for how to be visible in virtual environments as well. Frequently visiting online classrooms and holding virtual community meetings are ways to show visibility and care for all stakeholders.
Final thoughts
The 2021-22 school year will be a benchmark year for many; but with a little creativity and a positive outlook, it could be the springboard to propel students to be incredibly successful. When students know that they are going to be in a safe environment that values all students, allows them to explore their interests, and is led by caring adults who want them to be successful, we free them to reach for their full potential so they can be the leaders of the future.

Steve Amaro is an assistant principal at Freedom High School and Frank Beede is a principal and director of Student Services at Knightsen Elementary School District.
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