Creating a Student-Centered Culture

Creating a culture that is student-centered, equity-focused, and future-driven does not happen without systemic and strategic work. A district needs to engage in cycles of improvement…building the foundation is hard and will vary depending on the culture in each individual district. Transformative actions that are taken will probably not be sustainable without a culture or framework that supports the work.  Sometimes, however, the work helps transform the culture when we see the results of our efforts.

Principals, teachers, and other staff leaders are crucial for transformative work to happen because authentic action happens in classrooms and schools supported by the district, who collaboratively and strategically sets the direction.  

The challenge when we listen to great ideas is that we probably want to figure out a way to implement many of them.  Sometimes the stories of success are shared without a focus on the warts…the challenges and the setbacks.  Sometimes, some of the Learning 2025 districts may struggle to know where to begin, how to think about the examples we are learning through stories of success and how these stories might fit onto their own local context.

Districts, regardless of their size, should not try to do too many things at once…it will probably be a failed attempt.

A district needs to think about where it will focus first.  It can be a complex focus but it cannot appear to the system that district leadership is trying to implement multiple complex initiatives.  The district needs to think about its culture and what needs to change.  A district needs to think about its human and material resources and where some gaps may exist.  And a district needs to engage in cycles of improvement so that everyone, from classroom to boardroom and from parents to the community, can learn how to transform.  

The stage of building the foundation is hard and will vary depending on the culture in each individual district.  The process needs to  be methodical with no missed step along the way.  Further, since educators like to plan, I am not suggesting that this stage has to go on forever.  As we all know, the foundation and culture are always growing depending on what we learn.  

However, a systemic and strategic framework that drives actions, that supports learning, that shifts culture, that informs important communication and community engagement efforts and is the basis for how we measure improvement is imperative.


The following reflections might help districts begin or continue the process of transformation:


  1.   Change is necessary.
  2.   Culture is critical.
  3.   Coherence is key.
  4.   Traditional measures will not drive the transformation sought.  
  5.   As storms swirl around, keep your attention firmly planned on what is important…the students.
  6.   Admit the fact that we have been resisting change for decades.
  7.   Clear vision, strategic actions, an aligned learning plan, effective measurement and monitoring all executed through collaboration with an understanding that local context does matter will get us to a better place.
  8.   Students’ interests, strengths, passions and needs are at the center.
  9.   Our systems are not yet equitable. 

About the Author: 

Dr. John Malloy is the Superintendent of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in California. 



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