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Seeing teaching and learning happening firsthand in the Santa Fe Public Schools is a thing of beauty. I recently visited several Santa Fe Public Schools sites in my role as a school board member and was struck during those visits with overwhelmingly positive feelings that stayed with me.
At the first board meeting after my site visits were complete, I described what I saw as “magical” — from the kindergarten classroom where 15 kids were quietly focused on their individual work while the teacher sat with a handful of students in small-group instruction, to the class where seniors were evaluating their note-taking skills and learning how to fill out college applications.
There was also the seventh grade band class practicing to play alongside the high school marching band. That music brought tears to my eyes! I spoke with several students during the high school visit. The students stood tall, looked me in the eye, and spoke with pride about their work and their experiences. All of it was absolute magic.
It was weeks later when I found myself awake in the middle of the night, pondering our schools (as dedicated school board members often do) that it came to me — the magic I felt was, in fact, actually culture. Describing and defining the elements that go into positive school culture can be a challenge — it can be vague, but you know it when you see it, and you certainly know it when you feel it. Prioritizing positive school culture might not sound like a high-level priority — it’s too soft — but data and scientific research show a strong correlation between culture and outcomes.
When reading about culture in schools, I was disheartened to see it discussed almost exclusively on the blogs of expensive private schools and by educational consulting firms, as if culture is something that isn’t for all of us. Maybe culture in public education has been neglected in the bigger conversations that have centered on achievement and test scores, but it really shouldn’t be. These things are not mutually exclusive.
On my school visits, it was so clear that Santa Fe Public Schools has a culture of excellence and achievement. It’s a culture that fosters connection and compassion, inspires innovation and collaboration, and encourages curiosity and a love for learning. Of course, there are negative experiences and problems that need improvement, but there is a commitment to culture in every layer of SFPS — from the front office and the kitchens, to the classrooms and administration buildings, and also when staff relate to and work with families, volunteers and community stakeholders.
Culture isn’t something that can be mandated, it’s created by all of us, in our interactions, and it is absolutely tied to student success. We also all share the responsibility for maintaining the culture — not haphazardly but intentionally.
As we formally embark on Reimagining Santa Fe Public Schools, we recognize many parts of education are broken, irrelevant or falling short. But in considering our research questions — “What’s working? What’s not working? How do you want things to be (and) what’s getting in the way?” — I am certain the culture in SFPS is something that is working. We should protect and develop a strong culture. And we should build on it to ensure success in teaching and learning, staff recruitment and retention, emotional well-being and strong outcomes. That is practically magic.
Sarah Boses is vice president of the Board of Education, Santa Fe Public Schools. She represents District 2.
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