The Acceleration Academies have a distinctively celebratory culture. This tone is set at the district level, and the associated culture of recognition and appreciation influences the extent to which stakeholders – principals, teachers, students, and families – will commit to the program. Superintendent Riley and his leadership team have created a program that people want to take part in because it is framed as an opportunity as opposed to a consequence or punishment.

The Acceleration Academies are opportunities for excellent teachers to be recognized and celebrated, while also enabling them to learn and grow as professionals. They also are opportunities for motivated students to learn and build skills that will help them be more successful in school. Though accountability is key to the Academies’ success, the greater emphasis is on building from existing strengths. This asset-based mentality runs counter to a deficit orientation that often drives program and policy.

Choosing To Participate

Both students and teachers participate in the academies by choice, which is both telling of their draw and indicative of the tone. Not only do teachers choose to participate, they compete for the chance to work during their vacation. Superintendent Riley and his team are able to be quite selective, which elevates the prestige of the program. Students recognize and appreciate that their teachers are giving up vacation time to help them achieve their academic goals.

“It’s always the teachers who really want to go the extra mile. You’d never think someone would actually want to spend a whole week of vacation when they could be doing something else, but they know how important it is.”
— Principal Colleen Lennon, the Wetherbee K-8

In turn, students are aware of the expectation and come prepared to work, learn, and have fun. Students feel special to be selected to participate, and while they might initially be hesitant to give up vacation to attend school, most find the experience to be overwhelmingly positive. Much of this can be explained by teachers’ and administrators’ inclination to make the week engaging and fun, as well as academically rigorous. The Academies upend the conventional notion that rigor and fun cannot coexist. 

In addition, most teachers make a concerted effort to quickly get to know their students and build positive relationships – both between themselves and each student, and among the students as well. Building relationships and creating a sense of community not only enables teachers to provide targeted, personalized instruction based on their understanding of individual students’ needs, but it also establishes the classrooms within the Academies as safe places to ask questions, share ideas and opinions, and even make mistakes.  

“I want the students to feel like even though we’re only together for five days we have a relationship and we have a classroom culture that they can remember for the rest of the year and the future.”
— Jeffrey Cipriani, Teacher

Growth Mindset

A constant and consistent message to students is that if they work hard, they will build their skills during the week. Growth mindset is pervasive throughout the Academies, and students are encouraged to “fail fast” and “fail forward” in order to learn from mistakes and apply that learning to future endeavors. Further, growth mindset is a district priority and a defining characteristic of its culture; thus, principals promote that value within their schools and during the Academies.

“I want to get to know my students as themselves but also as mathematicians. So I’m going to find out what has been working well for them in math, things they really enjoy doing, and of course the struggles that they have in math and how they want to improve.”
— Earl Jones, Teacher

Excellent teachers actively seek opportunities to hone their craft, and are driven by a belief that they are capable of producing gains in student learning. The Sontag Prize and Acceleration Academies recognize and reward excellent teachers, and elevate the regard for the profession. Teachers at the Academies reported that one of the best aspects of the week is the ability to meet and exchange ideas with other excellent teachers. Starting with the professional development weekend and through the week, teachers are part of a community rather than isolated practitioners. Within this community they find “like-minded” educators who share attitudes and beliefs about teaching and learning, and who embrace the culture that Superintendent Riley and his team have established within Lawrence Public Schools in general, and in the Acceleration Academies in particular.

Culture Drives Climate

While often used interchangeably, the literature distinguishes between school climate and school culture. The former refers to the shared experience among members of the community, and typically includes the following dimensions: safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and the external environment. Culture, on the other hand, is comprised of the set of norms, beliefs, and values that are most prevalent throughout the school or district. Culture is the primary driver of climate, in the way that how a person thinks and feels influences the way he or she behaves and experiences the world.    

“When an organization has a clear understanding of its purpose, why it exists and what it must do and who it should serve the culture will ensure that things work well.”

There is general consensus that school climate and culture affect student achievement and other important outcomes. The authors of a 2013 review of 206 studies on school climate found that “sustained positive school climate is associated with positive child and youth development, effective risk prevention and health promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased graduation rates, and teacher retention” (Thapa, Cohen, Guffey & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2013).

Students and teachers must feel physically, emotionally, and intellectually safe and supported in order to remain engaged and motivated, and to perform effectively.  They also need opportunities to build constructive relationships and connections within the school community, and to have a collective understanding of their roles and responsibilities. The National School Climate Council offers a definition of positive school climate that illustrates the attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy learning environments, and also has developed school climate standards to provide coherence to school and districts’ efforts to measure and improve their climate.  

Research also indicates that school culture and climate play a critical role in efforts to improve teaching and learning (MacNeil, Prater & Busch, 2009). The school community must be receptive to and see the potential efficacy of reform efforts in order to support change.  Structural and/or organizational changes implemented within an inhospitable culture and climate, on the other hand, are unlikely to yield positive results. Given the research base that highlights the importance of school climate and culture in promoting positive student outcomes and facilitating school improvement efforts, there have been calls to better align policy and practice with those findings (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli & Pickeral, 2009).  

Key to Turnaround

School culture and climate impact student achievement, and creating an environment that is conducive to teaching and learning is a vital aspect of improvement efforts. Teachers and students need to feel safe and supported across multiple dimensions to do their best work. They also need a sense of self-efficacy, which can be enhanced through encouragement and recognition of progress. Most importantly, school must be perceived as a welcoming, positive place that is a steppingstone to a successful future.    

Creating positive culture starts at the top, and must be addressed as an integral component of improvement or turnaround efforts. What some might consider the “soft” aspects of educational improvement, and therefore the most disposable, miss an important opportunity to create the best soil for the flourishing of its people.       

Opportunities such as the Sontag Prize are rare in urban education, yet they may well serve to attract and retain effective educators, and may be a vehicle for building a national teacher talent pool. Recognition and appreciation of excellence, as well as opportunities to develop and grow, are essential elements to advancing a sense of professionalism among educators. The Academies challenge the public narrative of teachers as self-interested; the Sontag Prize elevates the profession to its rightful place as the steward of our collective future.