Many Adventist schools claim to be a "family." Being a "family" is a wonderful way to leverage a smaller campus or student enrollment size to benefit a school's culture. However, it is important to recognize that just being a "family" does not always translate to improved school culture. A school administrator's responsibility is to intentionally build community amongst a school's stakeholders, not just with the students, though they are an essential group. While this may initially feel like an overwhelming task, several simple, small things can be done to ultimately contribute to a sense of truly being a community, starting with the staff, the students' families, and the local church.
Building a community on a school's campus can be a daunting task when the various stakeholders are considered. Unfortunately, as a school administrator, one stakeholder group that is often overlooked is the staff themselves. We can sometimes take for granted that for the "family" to thrive, we need the staff on board with schoolwide initiatives and objectives. Take the time to build community amongst the staff through specific professional development activities. Demonstrate your respect and appreciation for the staff by planning events and professional development that respect their time and individual needs. Plan social activities and be sure to remember that for the staff to feel a part of the "family," those social activities should include, as appropriate, the staff families as well. Staff spouses and children welcomed as a part of the team can be an invaluable resource for building community.
Beyond making sure staff feel like a part of the "family," the students' families themselves should feel welcomed and appreciated on the campus. School administrators and their staff must be careful not to view the students' families as an oppositional force, even if there is occasionally conflict. Students' families should be intentionally invited to school events, not just fundraisers, and made to feel both welcomed and appreciated for their support of the program. School administrators would be wise to develop a method of giving student families a way to share their positive and negative opinions. The school can receive feedback through an effective Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) with intentional representative diversity, including new and generational families. Another important way to get families to buy into the program is to enlist their help to execute events for the greater community. Not just through financial giving but use their connections and networks to enhance and expand the school's community impact in meaningful ways.
Finally, it cannot be overstated how important it is to have the local constituent churches be a part of a school's "family." Find ways to incorporate the local pastors into regular school interactions, beyond just speaking for worship, so the students and pastors can all mutually grow in appreciation for each other. When appropriate, invite the local church to school events and activities. For example, many schools hold a variety of class vs. class events. Consider asking the churches to create teams to participate as well. Ultimately, the more the local church feels experientially invested in the local school, the more vibrant sense of "family" can be created on campus.
The term "family" can be thrown around a lot amongst Adventist schools. However, it takes intentional effort to ensure that "family" is healthy and helps a school grow its culture. Finding ways to involve more than just the students in growing a school's "family" can go a long way in improving school culture.
We hear a lot of talk these days about climate change. Regardless of anyone’s personal political views, school administrators can agree that the “climate” on a school campus is a significant issue. Tracking a campus’ climate often involves critical self-reflection from a school team (the administrator especially) and a healthy balance of perceived and data-driven assessments. Assessing a school’s climate or environment is just one part of the process. A school administrator must face a critical role: how do I effectively influence a school’s climate?
I posed this question to a group of secondary school principals from the Mid-America Union. What followed was a lively and informative discussion about how different school administrators from K-12 and boarding academies work to keep tabs on a school’s environment or culture and how to influence that environment in a positive direction.
Gary Russell (Sunnydale Adventist Academy) Adam Littell (Midland Adventist Academy)
Spencer Hannah (College View Academy)
Donavan Reeder (Campion Academy)
Steve Baughman (Indiana Academy)
Creating Culture by Building Community
Finally, it cannot be overstated how important it is to have the local constituent churches be a part of a school's "family."
One of the easiest ways to influence culture on a school campus is by celebrating the success you want to see emulated. Don't take it for granted that students are aware of each other's achievements. Instead, take the time as a school family to acknowledge one another's growth and accomplishments.
A school can recognize noteworthy achievements in many ways, but a great way to make this a regular part of campus culture is to utilize joint assemblies or chapels. Take time to acknowledge school-wide improvements in test scores, celebrate when seniors get accepted into colleges and share the accomplishments of recent graduates while current students still know them. This approach can provide positive encouragement to individuals while also contributing to a culture of motivation, perseverance, and overall positive behaviors. It should be noted to intentionally recognize a wide range of student accomplishments. Be cautious not only to celebrate high academic achievement or only to acknowledge a specific "type" of a student; be sure to "spread the love" to all the social groups and circles present on campus.
The school should put forth the effort to make sure that celebrating successes remains a genuine appreciation of the students and the school's accomplishments, not a routine or rote piece of programming. There is often talk about students being able to differentiate between "authenticity" and "programming," and this balance should be recognized when celebrating each other's accomplishments.
One crucial piece of improving a school's culture is to get the students to buy into the school's program. One of the best ways to get that buy-in is to find ways to empower student leaders. Too many times, students are given responsibility, whether it is a class office or telling a children's story, but they are not given the actual training and support to be successful. As school administrators, we need to be sure that we have a framework in place so that relevant staff members are intentionally working with student leaders to be prepared to succeed in their endeavors. Of course, this does not mean that success is guaranteed; in fact, some of the best growth can come through debriefing following an event. While this is often an overlooked step in growing student leadership, we should continue to focus on setting our students up for success.
Empowering student leaders can stretch us out of our comfort zones as well, and as much as we like to do that with our students, as school leaders, we sometimes struggle with taking the same advice. This does not mean we need to turn our keys over to the students, but we should consider who is "sitting at the table" when decisions are made. Putting student leaders in positions where their voices are heard and carry some weight is essential in "legitimizing" the roles we ask them to play. For example, are students playing an active part in scheduling and planning Saturday night activities, Sabbath afternoon outings, and other school initiatives?
It is incredibly rare in 2022 to hear a school administrator advocate for a "top-down" approach to leading a school. But, if that is the case, are we putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to giving our students meaningful roles and influence in our schools? Perhaps by empowering our students in meaningful and relevant ways, we can ultimately influence the culture we want to build on campus.
Creating Culture by Celebrating Success
Improving Culture by
Empowering Student Leaders
Putting student leaders in positions where their voices are heard and carry some weight is essential in "legitimizing" the roles we ask them to play.
Gary Russell, Adam Littell,
Spencer Hannah, Donavan Reeder