Let’s say you’re considering a particular high school for your child. So you start by visiting the school’s website. You click on the About page. You’re looking for a mission statement — something that spells out the school’s purpose, expresses its core values, and states goals for the students. Maybe your search is rewarded with something like this: We foster an environment that enables our students to become courageous learners, prepares them for success in the 21st century, and promotes equity and social justice.
Sounds amazing, right? Not so fast. Plenty of schools have carefully crafted mission statements that sound terrific. At some schools, the walls are emblazoned with values like “Integrity,” “Grit,” and “Courage.” But what do these vague, aspirational words actually mean? More importantly, are a school’s core values being put into practice in a meaningful way to benefit your student?
More than a mission statement
What you’re looking for is evidence that a school intentionally and thoughtfully brings its core values into every aspect of the school’s operations — what’s known in edu-speak as “coherent design.”
“Coherent design should really be the first thing that parents look for,” says Sujata Bhatt, co-founder and senior fellow at Transcend, a nonprofit that works with districts and communities to design equitable schools. To know if a school has a coherent design, Bhatt advises parents to ask clarifying questions like, “Will my child have daily experiences that they can connect and make meaningful? Or will they be going from one disjointed experience to another, killing time?”
Then, adds Bhatt, a parent and teen can get even more specific about what the high schooler wants from a school, be it an environmental justice school, STEAM school, or a more traditional college prep school. What’s essential, says Bhatt, “is that the school experience is unified in some way.”
A mission statement doesn’t mean much unless it’s deeply integrated into how a school operates. “You wouldn’t build the building without the blueprint,” Bhatt says. “And so there needs to be a school blueprint that takes the mission, the design principles, the graduate aims, and says, ‘This is the promise we’re making you as families, that these are the five things that your child will really be competent at by the time they leave our doors.’”
The good news is that many schools do practice what they preach. “We know these schools exist,” says Aylon Samouha, co-founder of Transcend. The ones that do it right, he notes, “are magical.” Samouha recommends looking for these signs that a school’s core values are being put into practice successfully.
The school’s stated mission and values are based on what’s important to the school community.
Too often, mission statements are written by a few top administrators behind closed doors. This can lead to a disconnect between what a school says is important and what matters most to the students and their families. Look for evidence that the school community had a hand in deciding what their school should be focusing on.
Barry Sommer, who runs Lindsay Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that helps districts nationwide transform their schools, says their program invites all stakeholders to take part in creating core values, a process he says must include a vision for the school’s graduates — who they envision them to be intellectually, socially, and emotionally. “How do you organize what’s best for an 18-year-old if you have no idea what parents, educators, unions, and our learners want?” says Sommer. “Essentially we are working with a community, taking them on a design journey so together we create what we want this school to be, what principles inform the core values.”
School design experts say community-created mission statements translate into practices that give a school’s students what they need to be successful. Transcend’s Samouha points to Van Ness Elementary School in Washington D.C.’s 6th ward. A majority of the Title I public school’s students come from low-income households. The community considered the unique needs of the student body when creating their core values, which include providing “a safe supportive community to maximize learning for each student.” That means ensuring all kids get a healthy breakfast and lunch; a welcoming place for after-school studies; a school social worker, psychologist, and nurse; and an emphasis on not just academics but social and emotional learning (SEL) to teach self-regulation skills to cope with trauma experienced at home or their neighborhood.
At Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, TN, the middle school’s mission statement reads: “We exist to empower our diverse community to live inspired, purposeful lives.” Valor walks the talk, supporting students’ academic success (it has a GreatSchools’ “student progress” rating of 9), but putting equal weight on the students’ social and emotional health thanks to its nationally renowned SEL program.
At the Lindsay Unified School District in California’s central valley, rather than hearing words like “excellence” and “teamwork” when asking what matters most to the community, the word ‘courage’ surfaced as an important value. Courage is an essential value for children who need the fortitude to rise above generational poverty. The Lindsay community also agreed that health was a core value. In response, school administrators provided parenting classes, counseling for parents and students, and healthy food.
It feels good to be there.
Pay attention to that gut feeling you get when you walk into a school, says Samouha.
“When you go to Disneyland, every single part of that experience reinforces and reflects the overall experience,” Samouha says. “All the things that come together when you step inside: The smells, the look of it, everything is aligned to the aim of happiness.” Cast members famously don’t remove their costume heads in front of the public. There’s no trash littering the grounds. The ride attendants are friendly. Those seemingly small details create a coherent experience for the visitor.
And while no teenager alive would describe their high school as the happiest place on Earth, a high school can make your student feel welcome, inspired, and yes, happy. “Look and observe what actually is happening in the school,” says Samouha, “and trust what you see.” If you walk into the school and see posters emblazoned in big letters with common core value words like, “Cooperation,” “Respect,” and “Support,” but then see students with their heads down looking unhappy or a staff member greeting you brusquely, these are clues that their core values aren’t being embraced by those running the school.
Look, too, for physical signs that reflect aspirational values: Are the school grounds, classrooms, and hallways inviting, clean, and calm? Are the lockers nicely maintained or beat up and graffitied? Is there signage that helps a newcomer know where they are? A school doesn’t have to be wealthy or well-funded to show signs that the building and grounds are cared for with respect.
What they’re doing makes sense.
To find out if a school is practicing what they preach, look for consistency in everything from the learning materials to the instruction methods. Does a school say it values inclusivity and social justice but use a dated curriculum that teaches history or literature from a limited number of perspectives? Does the mission statement say a school promotes “curiosity” and “engaged learners,” when in reality teachers stand in front of students lecturing without engaging students in discussion?
“Incoherence can be experienced in school to school, classroom to classroom, day to day,” Samouha says. “Maybe there was magic during math class, but some administrator told you to shut up during lunch.” It’s hard work for a school to pull off, Samouha says, but successful schools are diligent about making sure every aspect of a student’s day consistently reflects the school’s values.
“If a school says they are centered on empowering and motivating learners, but make them miss school when they misbehave,” says Nikolaus Namba, a partner at Transcend, that’s a red flag that the school’s practices are contradicting their values.
Everyone at the school knows — and lives — the school’s values.
Ask teachers and students what their school values most. Ask current students and families about the school’s vibe. You want to hear that everyone — from the sports coach and the librarian to the teachers and administrators — is living up to the school’s values in their daily interactions.
That doesn’t mean a teacher can’t have a bad day. But if the bus driver keeps order by yelling or the secretary is regularly dismissive, it speaks volumes about the school’s culture. “Ask as many open-ended questions as you can,” says Samouha. “Talk to the school leader and ask, ‘Can you tell me more about your core values? What is the experience of going to school like for your learners?’” It’s a great sign, adds Samouha, if they can easily answer your questions.
Namba says they work with schools to “overcommunicate” the schools’ core values so they become second nature to everyone working there. “Everyone should know the school’s values and mission to help deliver kids to a promising future once they graduate.”
What to consider when looking at a school’s core values
- Ask who wrote a school’s mission statement: A founder? A small group of top administrators? Members of the school community, which may best reflect the unique needs of that school?
- Don’t take a school’s mission statement at face value. Look for evidence that it’s reflected in what’s really going on at a school, and trust your gut.
For educators and administrators:
- Invite your entire community — staff, faculty, parents, and students — to create or revisit your school’s mission statement. Make sure the mission statement addresses the unique needs and goals of your school.
- Look at how your school’s values are reflected in day-to-day practice. If words like “Respect,” “Integrity,” “Compassion,” Inclusion,” and “Curiosity” are part of your mission statement, are the staff and faculty consciously practicing these values with students and with each other?
- If you want to learn more about implementing coherent design at your school, check out this excellent step-by-step blueprint.
This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.