Creating School Traditions That Advance Student Success

Every school has traditions. In many cases they are unconscious inherited activities–they may require some effort but they occur almost automatically. Some are healthy, some banal, some are destructive.
I visited two high schools last week that were consciously creating new traditions–attempting to incorporate into their schedule, calendar, practices and spaces iconic symbols and rituals that would reinforce student success.
Students at One Stone, a new microschool in Boise, applied design thinking to identify productive traditions they could initiate.
In Kansas City, the leadership team at University Academy (UA) leads a full-court press on college preparation, enrollment and completion. Every class, practice, and activity is designed to increase the percentage of students that graduate from college.
Following is a summary of some old traditions and some recently created intentional mission-advancing activities at a handful of schools (both old and new).


Intentional Activities

Hall monitor Every student greeted as they enter the door of every classroom (UA)
Posters Pendent from colleges attended by alumni (UA)
Yearbook 10 world class publication (Paly)
Homecoming hall parade (UA)
Homeroom Advisory (See 15 roles of an effective advisory)
End of year party Leadership Picnic Celebration: students share their progress with parents over a picnic (Mukilteo Elementary)
Parent-teacher conference Students take ownership for their learning. Also senior culminating presentations more of a right of passage (Bremerton High School)
Dress Up Days Teachers and students wear college, job or corporate wear (AVID schools)
School Rivalries Superfans across schools/districts work together to raise money for charities, positive sportsmanship, etc.

Next-Gen Homecoming Pep Fest

robotWhen East Ridge High School opened seven years ago in St Paul, the leadership team was determined to incorporate traditions that went beyond simply ‘school spirit’ to truly emphasize the school’s mission around academics.
At the school’s homecoming assembly, a student-built robot (pictured right) stole the show, generating at least as much enthusiasm and applause as the homecoming royalty. The robotics team was recognized for winning a state competition and advancing to the Robotics World Championships.
Also celebrated were National Merit Scholars, debate scholars, speech competitors and the Adapted Softball team state champs.
The lesson is that traditions are great–if they advance the mission of success for all students.
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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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