Building Positive School Culture: A Conversation with Mrs. Obermeier

Building Positive School Culture: A Conversation with Mrs. Obermeier

Posted on August 21, 2017 // KIPP Poder,

On August 8th, KIPP San Antonio Public Schools started classes for the 2017-18 school year. Compared to most other districts, this is at least 1-2 weeks earlier. The primary reason for the earlier start is to establish a strong school culture — an important focus at KIPP San Antonio. To give you a sense of what this entails, we spoke to Rachel Obermeier, School Leader at KIPP Poder Academy.

When I tell people how early our school year starts almost everyone is shocked. What takes place during the first couple of weeks of establishing culture?

RACHEL: The week before the start of school teachers are brought in for training/onboarding to set the foundation for all the culture building done with students. The first five days of school are focused on two big themes: (1) tight alignment and integration of culture across all grade levels to establish school-wide routines, expectations, and systems and (2) focus on high expectations for teacher lesson planning. The only way we are going to get our kids through college is for us to be incredibly detailed and rigorous in our lesson planning.

KIPP San Antonio is known for its focus on academics and character. Can you tell me more about what KIPP Poder does to build character?

At KIPP Poder, four values are emphasized to students and staff – tenacity, empathy, courage, and collaboration. During the first week of school, these values are incorporated into all lessons. In addition to the values, there is also a focus on the quality of work and professionalism. Students learn the nuances of a professional greeting, business handshake, and effective voicemail.

At the risk of sounding like a skeptic, how do actually know that focusing on character is effective? It’s not like there’s a state exam for this.

Character building lessons and expectations are reinforced throughout the year using our Live School platform. Live School is an online platform for evaluating how well students are meeting expectations. KIPP Poder developed a rubric which is aligned to our 4 core values. Within each value, there are specific behaviors which can be assessed. For example, under tenacity, we look for students not giving up on and completing all their work. Under empathy, students should demonstrate respect, kindness, and active listening with their fellow classmates and teachers.

Okay, I have to admit that’s impressive. How do you motivate students to buy into character building?

Students earn points by demonstrating behaviors and can use those points for rewards. They can use points for several things including participating in special events like hiking on a Saturday or wearing their favorite college t-shirts on Friday. Students do a weekly reflection on their performance and set personal goals.

When I think about culture, I also think about how schools handle discipline. Earlier this year, Juan Juarez at KIPP Camino Academy published an op-ed in the Express-News on the benefits of using restorative practices. What role do you see for restorative practices in your school?

For those who are not familiar with the concept of restorative practices, it’s a holistic approach to communicating with and developing our students. When we founded the school, restorative practices were at the center of every system and routine that we created because of my deep-seated belief that school has to be a place of unconditional love for kids to thrive. Restorative practices and the focus of working with students to keep them in school and in the classroom when they don’t meet expectations supports that value.

How do restorative practices work when discipline issues arise with students?

When things do come up, we respond by working with students and often families to figure out what happened, identify the impact of what happened, and work collaboratively to figure out how to move forward. That is the primary role of our Restorative Discipline Coordinator, but this is a practice and philosophy shared by every staff member on-site. This is a new role at our school this year. As our school grew, we recognized the importance of being consistent with restorative discipline with all students throughout the entire school year.

I wish restorative practices were around when I was in school. Would you mind sharing an example of a situation restorative discipline was required?

Funny you should ask. We are working through one right now. A student was accused by a classmate of throwing a lava lamp on the floor in science class. In a traditional discipline system, you’d likely see an immediate consequence – destruction of school property would mean suspension or in-school suspension. Using restorative discipline, we took time to talk to the young man and his teacher together to discuss their perspectives. This led to a collaborative discussion about next steps. We determined the student didn’t throw the lamp but played with the cord which resulted in the lamp falling and breaking. He will have to clean up the mess. We are working with his parents to determine if there are alternative approaches such as chores at home to help him understand the consequences of the situation. This approach teaches accountability without taking him out of class and without missing instruction.