Upon completion of my Fellowship with the Bellwether Education Partners/Texas Education Agency, my CCC Model was codified. I accepted the position of Chief Executive Officer of East Texas Advanced Academy (ETAA) in partnership with a school district in East Texas where I served as principal at a middle and elementary school simultaneously. This advanced my career to becoming the CEO of ETAA. Now, I have oversight of six campuses, which includes responsibilities surrounding personnel, budget, curriculum and retention.
The ETAA “Culture Conscious Campuses” Model and The Wise Instructional Framework evolved from my belief that it is never the children’s fault, it is OURS! The model focuses on creating “Culture Conscious Campuses” that will deliver exceptional outcomes for our children. It is my belief that we have a moral and legal obligation to bring out of our children what already exists within them. A student’s zip code should not determine the quality of education they receive. Sixty-five percent of the children entering school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet because the future of the economy is in STEM and that’s where the jobs of tomorrow will be. As a result, we strive to be a district-wide and state-wide blueprint for innovation and excellence. Our students are encouraged to dream and dream big.
Our work is to empower school leaders by refocusing them on the vision and mission as well as equip them with the skills and knowledge that are necessary for growing teacher leaders. In other words, we will build their leadership capacity. This includes putting systems and processes in place that will transform school culture aligned with a strong academic program. We begin our transformation process by revealing the practices, customs, frameworks and beliefs that cultivate and advance a positive climate, as well as promotes cooperation, consideration, accountability, risk-taking, collaboration, innovation and social awareness.
The research is very clear; a strong school culture is an important foundation for student achievement and growth.
- Schools with strong instructional culture retain more teachers and have better student achievement (TNTP, 2012).
- Schools with weak instructional cultures lose twice as many effective teachers.
- Schools with strong instructional cultures experience better student achievement in both math and ELA.
- Strong relationships between students and teachers fuel student engagement (and thus motivation), which supports development in academics and beyond (National Academies, 2018; Transcend, 2018).
- Not all students get this experience; an effect that worsens as students age.
- High expectations support a student’s sense of belonging in the learning environment, which is tied to student engagement (National Academies, 2018; Transcend, 2018).
- Most teachers do not yet set high expectations for all students.
- Educational systems do not reward a high expectations mindset as much as content and teaching methods.
Building “Culture Conscious Campuses” is at the core of our work
A Culture Conscious Campus is all of the Following:
Student- Centered Culture
- Our students are exceptional. We bring out of them what already exists within.
- We create structure to drive to deeper learning, faster. We have clearly articulated rules, processes, and procedures for culture and instruction. With the right guardrails, teachers are facilitators and “chief learners,” not “sages on stages.”
Culture of High Expectations
- We say what we mean and do what we say. We set high expectations for students and adults – and hold each other accountable. We promote cooperation, consideration, & social awareness.
Strong Instructional Culture
- We teach with purpose and align all we do to standards. Our curriculum is vertically aligned and tightly focused. We strive not only for mastery, but for excellence.
- We create reflective space for teachers to grow. Our leaders model reflective practices and encourage constructive communication and collaboration across all staff. We dedicate meaningful time for professional learning.
Culture of Engagement
- We listen to feedback and always strive to improve. We give staff, parents, and community opportunities to engage in the educational process. We hear their input and make changes based on it. We are stronger together.
We also align to the same strong, comprehensive academic program. Our cornerstone characteristics are our non-negotiables. We will not budge on these.
Safe and Inclusive School
- We know students must feel safe in order to learn. We set and enforce rules and procedures to keep all students safe.
College- and Career-Ready Critical Thinkers and Problem-Solvers
- We offer rigorous instruction across multiple innovative models (e.g., STEAM, International Baccalaureate, Montessori), individual interventions, and real-world experiences (including project-based learning, vocational apprenticeships, field trips, and more).
Whole Child Development
- We develop students’ social emotional, creative, and cognitive capacities so that students learn how to fail, learn, grow, and progress.
Strong Student and Staff Relationships
- We are friendly, but we are not students’ friends. Instead, teachers are the facilitators of learning for children who create safe structures that encourage risk-taking and enable success.
- We constantly and consistently engage the community in the educational process of our children.
Growing Teacher Leaders
In addition to culture being at the core of our work, we ensure that our leaders and teachers utilize research-based, best practice models and instructional framework. This includes Professional Learning Communities, Margret Kilgo’s Standards 1st Model, and Madeline Hunter’s Lesson Cycle. By following the Professional Learning Community framework with fidelity and the Margret Kilgo’s framework for breaking down the standards, teachers have opportunities to collaboratively analyze data, make informed decisions, and integrate innovative approaches to instructional practices, such as Z-space. By fostering and growing teachers to be experts in their craft, teacher leaders arise, thus being the “boots on the ground,” so to speak, for my vision.
How we practice as educators is our “special sauce.” We value diversity, equity, and inclusion in our schools and build this into our philosophy of “culture conscious campuses,” where the student comes first. We seek strong managers of schools and classrooms and individuals who are dedicated to honing their craft while going the extra mile. We invest time and resources in developing our teachers and leaders. Teachers should be expected and allowed to step out of their comfort zones and exert leadership abilities that will enhance teaching and learning, which will lead to student achievement. It is a matter of multiplying, having teacher leaders is equivalent to having an additional five or more leaders to assist on your campus.
With this in mind, teachers lead and facilitate “true” Professional Learning Communities where they are collaboratively disaggregating data and breaking down the state standards with the question of “What next?” These are highly structured, student centered, collaborative meetings where the end goal is student success. Teachers dive into the data and standards to understand their practice and best allocate time and resources to the biggest and most pressing needs. This is an ongoing process with constant observation, reevaluation, and collaboration to create the best learning environment for each individual student.
It is also ETAA’s belief that by cultivating, monitoring and advancing a positive climate in our schools unequivocally begins with the leader. Leaders must clearly define and communicate the organizational values, beliefs, rituals and expectations to all stakeholders in the simplest of terms.
ETAA’s teachers and staff are encouraged to interact. In fact, time and space is planned for this. They share information, insight, knowledge, their particular skill set and constructive criticism. Consequently, this is building a culture of concern for one another’s progress and success, resulting in a welcoming environment that is conducive to teacher morale, self-esteem and commitment to educating. “When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.”
It is my belief that a school models meaningful and challenging instruction for all students. Education is a means to an end for each of our students; therefore, it is my job to lead a network that fosters the highest level of excellence and education for our children. Effective and strategic planning is at the forefront of this. When districts regularly measure school performance, expand high-potential programs, allow families to flow to the program that suits them best, give educators the latitude they need to do what’s best for the kids in their school and continuously refine all of these practices, districts see improved school performance over time.
About the Author
Cynthia Wise is the CEO of East Texas Advanced Academies, the nonprofit organization overseeing Longview ISD’s six Senate Bill 1882 charter campuses: East Texas Montessori Prep, Bramlette STEAM and Ware East Texas Montessori academies; Forest Park Middle School; and Johnston-McQueen and J.L. Everhart elementary schools.