A good deal of school culture discussions center around the culture of a constituency within the school (usually teachers or students) and how to make changes to that culture. Of course, culture is a much more pervasive and complex web of teacher culture, parent culture and student culture. As school leaders, we have a vision for the school culture and some of the tension we experience as leaders stems from students and families who don’t buy into an aspect of our vision. The admission process is the introduction to the school culture for families and it bears exploration as a way to sustain, and even change, the school culture.
When new members join a school community they are being accepted into the culture of the school. The norms and values of the school are taken on as part of the acclimation process. Although some of the culture will be accepted by new families naturally through osmosis, a more directed and thoughtful onboarding allows a school to capitalize on an opportunity for clarity. Difficult conversations with parents or students who disagree about aspects of the culture are made easier when they agreed to attend the school knowing more about what the school stands for. In one of my first years as a principal, a non-religious parent approached me upset about the fact that her son had to wear a kippa. This conversation was considerably easier since she was well aware that this would be the case when she made the decision for her son to attend the school.
Schools should have a comprehensive welcome plan for new families in order to help them adapt to the new environment and become part of the culture of the school. Thinking about the process of a family’s introduction to the school in two complimentary ways can help to create an improved welcome plan. The first sense is holistically, asking how we’d like new families to experience the school and their introduction to its culture. Once there is a clear vision of how we want families to experience and inculcate themselves into the school, a chronological plan of experiences can be mapped out from the first moment the family is introduced to the school until they are an established part of the school community.
The first thing families usually see is the website and promotional materials. These aspects usually get a good deal of attention from the marketing and admissions professionals, as they should. Application materials get less attention but are also important artifacts of the culture for a new family. What information is solicited from applicants? What information is given about the school? How does this reflect on the culture of the school and what messages are these potential families receiving? This type of reflection and crafting should be done at each step of the process.
The Human Element
The human element of admissions is just as critical for the acculturation process as it is for welcoming these new families warmly. Many schools have student and parent ambassadors who help with the recruiting process. These are some of the main faces that new families will interact with as they form an understanding of the culture and values of the school and should be chosen carefully. A very social parent who has many connections but does not represent the culture of the school as well as other parents may not be the right choice. Training parents and students, especially ambassadors, on how to welcome new families is critical.
When changes to the culture are in process, ambassadors can help to make sure new families understand. A few years ago, we rolled out a residency policy that ensured students would be in classes at least 90% of the time. Although this policy was in line with state requirements and the concept of students being in school should not have been novel, it still met with pushback as it was a change in what had previously been a more laid-back approach to attendance. By making the policy and its reasons clear to new families and students during the onboarding process, the policy quickly became the norm when over the next few years the newer families became the majority in the school.
Frequently, students applying to a school will visit for a day and be interviewed. This experience is very defining in terms of their perception of the culture of the school. Who meets with the student and parents and what messages are presented should be decided in advance with the understanding that the foundation of cultural onboarding is being built in these hours. When scheduling days for visits, in addition to practical considerations, schools must consider what aspects of the day are important in giving the student a sense of the school culture and values. At my school, we are fairly insistent that a student experience the entire day including davening and lunch since those experiences are critical to understanding the religious and social culture.
Student Cultural Acclimation
When a student and their family are introduced to a school there are levels of interaction which are all part of the acclimation to the culture of the school. Using the three levels of analysis common to the social sciences of micro, meso, and macro can be helpful in looking at this acclimation. What might be termed the micro level is the students themselves and their interaction with peers in the school. A meso level is the classroom where the teacher facilitates academic and social growth in his or her students as an interacting group. The macro level is the whole school experience which is orchestrated by the administration of the school.
Students pick up expectations and culture from their peers on this micro level. If this process is left to chance their perception of the culture may not match the school’s vision. Bringing students more purposefully into the upkeep, and even the tweaking, of the culture reaps benefits in many areas. We can prepare our students to welcome new members of the community, acting as ambassadors who help in promoting school values. If new students are assigned buddies, such buddies should be prepared for their roles as tour guides of the school culture alongside their responsibilities to help their buddies navigate the layout of the campus and the schedule of the day.
On the meso level of the class, teacher preparation for welcoming new students should be part of a school’s welcome plan. Teacher leaders can be instrumental in both the on-the-ground acculturation as well as acting as architects in planning and organizing the school plan. Parallel plans should be made for the new parents and families on the class level as well.
On the macro level of the school, the welcome plan should include thoughtful layout of materials and experiences for new families over the first year. Many schools do a good job of this on the front end with welcome events and materials for new parents. However, after a few weeks there is frequently little, if any, follow up. When families first enter a school, they are inundated with new information and frequently are not in the best position to truly understand the culture of the school. Many new families have just moved which only compounds their distraction. Planning events and parent education for new parents later in the year will not only help to continue the acclimation of new families but will also introduce material at a time when they can be digested in a more focused way.
Buddy families are also an excellent way to make sure that new families are introduced to the culture. Here as well, there are frequently specific events or tasks for the buddy family at the start of the year but there is not always follow through later in the year. The same question that was asked regarding training for student and parent ambassadors can be asked in this case as well: what training and preparation for this role do we afford to these families? Buddy families are also excellent choices for involvement in creating the school welcome plan and should be chosen with the same care as ambassador parents.
Admission Changing Culture
In addition to preserving positive aspects of the culture, the admission process is also a strategy for cultural change. The admissions of the school can influence culture both naturally and by design.
In a natural sense, the culture of the school is deeply affected by the students and families that are part of the school. Usually, the oldest students in the school act as leaders, in many cases officially, within the school. When the students are positive purveyors of the culture it makes a world of difference. In two consecutive years we had very different senior classes. One year they were excellent school citizens and leaders of school spirit, while the next year a significant number of students did not buy in to the culture the school was trying to create. The difference in student leadership and culture was evident in many things from the number of discipline referrals to school spirit to religious enthusiasm across all four grades.
Making changes in a school is no easier than in any other organization. Those new to an organization usually embrace new policies more easily than those who have grown accustomed to the status quo. When new policies or initiatives are introduced to a school, new families can be very helpful in facilitating the acceptance of the policies by role modeling. I have found that new families who have experience at other schools frequently can be voices of reason when more entrenched families balk at needed change.
A final aspect of admissions and culture is one I have mixed feelings about. There are times when a head of school leading a change effort admits families and students who are aligned with their goals before the school has created the framework to support these students. Examples can be students with learning issues, students whose Jewish background is lacking when entering middle or high school, or English language learners entering a school. When a school does not yet have the right support in place, these students can be disruptive in the classroom and can occupy a lot of staff time. I refer to such a situation as an “aspirational admit”; the school leadership admits a student based on the school they want to have rather than the school they currently have.
Aspirational admits usually create stress for teachers, students, and the family, but they can also be a catalyst for change by bringing current areas of school need into focus for staff. John Kotter, organizational change guru, lists increasing the urgency as the first step of organizational change , meaning that to facilitate change a leader must initially demonstrate the need for change to the members of the organization. Such a use of admissions to change culture may be effective in leading change in a school, but school leadership needs to ask: at what price is such a move warranted? If a leader is contemplating such a move, great care must be taken to assure that there is not a lasting negative impact on that student’s school experience or the experiences of other students.
Admissions and Culture
Admission and recruitment are the mechanism for sustaining and growing enrollment, but they are also a mechanism for sustaining and changing school culture. Introduction of new students and families to the school is an often-overlooked way to affect culture. When admitting students, we often focus most energy on trying to encourage them to join the school and deciding if they are a good fit for the school. Adding the goal of culture regulation to the structuring of the school’s welcome plan is an excellent tool for leading positive cultural change.
Rabbi Maury Grebenau is the principal of Yavneh Academy of Dallas. He has been a senior administrator and a change agent in schools for the past nine years in Texas and California and has published numerous articles on educational leadership. Email Rabbi Grebenau at firstname.lastname@example.org.