By Alexa Sorden, Founding Principal of Concourse Village Elementary School, NYC
At Concourse Village Elementary School, our school motto is “it takes a village to educate a child.” To get the best results, everyone in the village needs to work together in the best interests of each student.
For our school, that means creating a “community of one”: a safe, consistent environment where all adults are on the same page and using the same language, strategies and tools. Creating a cohesive school culture has been a key component of our success at CVES.
The Importance of Consistency
All students benefit from consistency. The more predictable we can make the school environment, the more secure students will feel and the better they will be able to concentrate on learning.
This is especially important for our students at CVES. Our New York City neighborhood has all of the problems common to low-income urban environments. Many of our students have unstable home lives, due to frequent moves or families living in high-stress circumstances. Some are homeless. Some have parents who work multiple jobs to make ends meet and struggle to find consistent childcare. Some have a parent in prison or family members struggling with addiction. Many of them come to school hungry at least some of the time.
For students whose home lives are unpredictable, having a consistent and safe school environment is not just beneficial—it is critical. Students need to know that the rules and expectations are the same from year to year and class to class. Our faculty works hard to build a unified school culture that provides a safe, positive and predictable environment for both learning and social interaction.
Building Unity for Teachers and Students
A cohesive school culture isn’t something that happens by accident. It is something that is created deliberately over time. This process must be both:
- systematic (carefully planned and understood by all); and
- consistent (implemented at all times by everyone in the school community).
Unity at CVES starts with the teaching staff. We build unity between teachers by creating teacher teams that are safe, positive and collaborative. Teachers at CVES are expected to make one observation of a colleague each week so they can learn from each other and provide feedback. This is not about formal evaluation, but rather about building rapport between colleagues and providing a mechanism for peer learning and continual improvement. In addition, one aspect of teacher rating is based on how the entire grade level performs. This means that educators are invested in each other’s success and in the success of every student in the grade. Teachers take the time to get to know each other’s students, conduct demo lessons for colleagues, and look for co-teaching opportunities.
This unity between teachers leads to a more positive and consistent environment for students. Students know that they will use the same academic language and learning strategies in every class at every grade. They will also be held to the same behavioral standards and these standards will be reinforced in the same way. We use a School-Wide Positive Behavioral Intervention Support system designed to promote behaviors that support positive social interactions and build an effective learning environment for all students. This goes beyond enforcing discipline; students learn meditation techniques and strategies for calming down and refocusing.
To build unity among students, we created a community service program for our older students. Fifth graders (seniors in our elementary school) give up their recess to mentor pre-K and Kindergarten students. Our students know that they are expected to help each other succeed and give back to our school community. We also created a Brain Power Student Ambassador program with 25 students from grades K-5. Ambassadors get 12 hours of professional development (for which they get credit) to learn how to become peer trainers. Once a month, the Ambassadors meet with teachers and school leadership to bring forward student concerns and share ideas they would like to implement, books they would like added to the reading list and other issues. This program has helped to build trust between students and teachers and spread our school culture through our student body.
The Role of Thinking Maps in Building a Cohesive Culture
Thinking Maps is another tool we use in building consistency and cohesiveness across all classrooms and grade levels. The “common language for learning” provided by Thinking Maps helps students make smooth transitions between classes and grades. Because students don’t have to learn new academic language and learning strategies each year, they can focus instead on the grade-level content they need to learn.
The Maps are not just used in student assignments. They are integrated into everything we do. Teachers use Maps for shared planning such as lesson plans and curriculum maps. We primarily use Flow Maps to display the academic trajectory of our school year. Flow Maps are also used when assigning independent work, so students know exactly what steps they need to follow to solve a problem or complete an assignment. At the end of each day, teachers ask students to write the questions they have about the day’s lessons and post them on a large Circle Map. Teachers use the questions to plan instruction for the next day.
After five years as a Thinking Maps school, the Maps have become embedded into our daily practice for both teachers and students. Students know that the way that teachers will present information and the way that they will be expected to demonstrate learning will remain consistent throughout their time at CVES. This frees their brains for higher-level thinking and greater engagement with the actual content.
At CVES, every component of our school culture has been deliberately thought out and planned, including the implementation of Thinking Maps. It’s one more way we are building a learning environment that is focused on the most important people in our school: our students.
Alexa Sorden is the Founding Principal of Concourse Valley Elementary School, a PreK-5 school in New York City. Founded in 2013 to replace a failing neighborhood school, CVES is now ranked in the top ten out of hundreds of NYC schools. Read how she did it here.