Designing Your School For Success

Schools, as well as other organizations, usually produce outcomes based on their design.  Have you given much thought to that proposition?  The results you’re getting relate to the design of your school.  If you are successful, it’s not an accident.  If you’re not getting the outcomes you are after, maybe you need to make some changes to your design.  Granted there are many things that contribute to the level of success at your school, but design is one that can most easily be adjusted by you.

Here’s an example:  At a high school, success is measured in great part by the number of students who graduate. When a student drops out of school without earning a diploma, one of the chief reasons they may do so is that they don’t like school.  When we work to engineer schools of success, we have to look at our practices to determine if they match up with our desired results.

If we want more students to graduate, we need a school full of adults who like being around young people, who know how to engage them meaningfully in work, and who are willing to shape the design of their classroom and their work to meet their students’ needs.

design school

A great place to begin in fine-tuning your school’s design is with the first grade students reach when they come to your school.  It’s there that the stage is set for the remainder of their work with you.  If they get off to a great start, things most typically go well.  The first year at a school is a predictor of performance throughout a student’s experience there.

Back to the high school example, let’s look at ninth grade.  So many high schools haven’t designed for success in the ninth grade.  In fact, it looks like they have built a structure for the opposite!

Why do we have the design we have?  Much of what happens in schools does so because it’s what’s been done before, it’s what teachers saw when they were students or even its how they were taught as beginning teachers.  We haven’t meant to have a design contrary to success, but in many places we do.

What do ninth-graders need?  A nurturing school experience that accounts for their transition to high school and works with them as they learn how to navigate high school and high school level work.  They need to not get lost in the size of the school.  They need to learn how to be good students, not be singled out for not having figured it out already.  They need lessons on organization, study skills, getting along with others.   They need space to grow in where their mistakes are a part of the growing experience not a never-ending spiral of failures.

Ninth-grade students need to pass all of their classes. When they do, they are exponentially more likely to graduate than their counterparts who fail multiple classes.

Is your school designed for its primary goal?  Many high schools continue to have high failures in ninth-grade.  Why do they fail?  Most usually, it’s the math that gets them.  No, not mathematics the course, but the math of “grading” policies.  A freshman who gets a lot of zeros for not turning in homework or other assignments may know just as much as another student who is passing the class, but the math will always get them.

Can you redesign your school to build systems where students are driven to get work accomplished and avoid a bad start to ninth-grade?  Do your teachers work together for the common good of all of their students in all that they do, not just how well they do in their particular class?

Design it.  You know the particulars of your school and what you need to focus on.  Find it and do it!  Design for success; don’t let your school design be left to chance.  Don’t let it be random.  Ask yourself this:  what can we change in the ways we operate the school that would lead to more student success? 




This week at Principal Matters! we are examining the four pillars of the Freshman Experience: 1) design; 2) support; 3) culture; and 4) instruction.  While the view this week is through the lens of Freshman Academy and the ninth-grade experience, the conversation is pertinent regardless of the grade band.

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