What Do Successful Schools Look Like and How Are They Run?

By Brian Gatens

No matter how a school is organized and managed, however, I would argue the successful ones share these characteristics:

High levels of engagement

Successful schools don’t exist in spite of their surrounding community, faculty or students — they exist because of them. Simply put, these schools realize that authentic engagement is a key to being successful, and they encourage it. This goes beyond the classroom. Parents and other community members are a part of their children’s learning, whether through frequent support and monitoring at home or volunteering at school. Students are engaged in the learning process, and teachers make deliberate instructional choices that bring the students into active learning. Passive, seat-bound learning is the exception, not the norm.

Positive school culture

This goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the most essential factor in any environment is a feeling of safety and security. If this essential ingredient is missing, then students cannot engage the parts of their brains that lead to deep and meaningful learning. It’s important to note, though, that a positive school culture isn’t simply about personal safety; it’s also about emotional safety and having classrooms that foster appropriate academic risk-taking by students. And don’t forget that a highly demanding academic environment is not necessarily a positive environment. Too many schools create a “boiler room” mentality where high academic performance happens at the expense of the students’ emotional well-being.

Effective school leadership

Successful schools create management structures that offer leadership and guidance for the staff, foster appropriate behavior expectations for students, and establish social norms for the adults (both teachers and parents) who interact at school. School leadership is a complex task as the principal has to appropriately delegate responsibility, hold people accountable and communicate effectively with all members of the community — all the while supervising the academic and behavior experiences of hundreds of children.

I see wide engagement, positive culture and effective leadership as the common traits of a well-managed, successful school. Each of these topics can be drilled into further, delving into setting a clear and shared focus, developing high levels of collaboration and communication, aligning curriculum between grade levels and having strong levels of professional development.

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