7 Steps to Starting the School Day Strong


Improvement guru W. Edward Demings once said, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.” My experience in schools has shown me over and over again that Demings was right on point. Columbus Collegiate Academy-Main St. (CCA-Main St.), a middle school in United Schools Network (USN), has purposefully designed a number of systems at the start of the day to set staff and students up for success for this very reason.

#1 Morning Hour (7:30-8:30 a.m.)

Two years ago, USN reorganized its school day for two reasons. First, we wanted our students to get more sleep. Second, we needed time for our adult teams to be able to meet and collaborate. We developed a two-week rotation for grade level meetings, professional development sessions, and other similar work. In the past, many of these meetings were crammed into the afternoon after an already long school day. Now, they are start-of-day activities. The chart below outlines how CCA-Main St. uses the morning hour to drive continuous improvement.

Morning Hour.png

#2 Huddle (8:30-8:39 a.m.)


For nine minutes each morning, our school-based staffs come together for a quick check-in prior to student arrival. Huddle sets a positive, student-centered tone for the day. Important logistical information such as staff coverage needs and schedule changes can be efficiently discussed. Celebrations are recognized (“My homeroom had 100 percent homework completion yesterday!”), and concerns and challenges can be addressed. 

#3 Bus Handshake (8:40 a.m.)

All students are greeted with handshakes as they get off the bus. The handshake is a formal greeting that communicates to students that they are crossing the threshold into something important. Having the school leader at the bus consistently in all weather let’s students know that we will be there for them every day. The leader can also use this time to develop a relationship with the bus driver, and get a pulse on any culture issues that may be developing among students.

#4 Uniform Check (8:45 a.m.)

Our students wear uniforms. We think if you are going to set this expectation, then you have to follow-through with ensuring students are in uniform. I’ve worked in places where there was no follow through with the dress code, which causes confusion among students and staff. At CCA, uniform check is handled matter-of-factly. Students missing an item go to the office to pick it up. There is a system in place for tracking and returning these items. Students also lose dollars off their weekly paycheck when they are not in uniform.

#5 Breakfast Pick-Up (8:47 a.m.)

Students pick up breakfast in the front entryway on the way to their classroom. Each USN school has a slightly different system for this procedure, but the important thing is that each has a procedure in place, and it is done the same way every day. This may seem inconsequential, but unnecessary variability in daily routines can cost teachers and students valuable learning time.

#6 Homework Check (8:50 a.m.)

Homeroom teachers quickly check each student’s homework for completion every morning. Students with incomplete or missing homework assignments are assigned to Homework Center during the lunch hour in order to complete the assignment. They also receive a paycheck deduction and phone call home. These systems are in place to ensure that students are getting the meaningful practice and feedback they need to be successful in their classes.

Check out Steps 3-6 of CCA-Main St.'s arrival system in the video below.

#7 Morning Meeting (9:10 a.m.)

Each grade level at CCA-Main St. comes together for 15 minutes once per week for Morning Meeting. This time is devoted to student recognition, staff announcements, and team-building activities. Each Morning Meeting ends with a teacher presenting the Spirit Stick to the student who has recently best embodied the school’s STRIVE Values.

Studying & Sharing Best Practices

At the School Performance Institute, we are studying school design best practices like CCA’s strong start to the day and sharing them through our Study the Network workshops.

Purposeful design at the start of the day is critical to setting school teams up for success. Teachers and students with weak arrival systems will be quick to tell you about the lost learning time that results. Having strong start of the day systems is one component to closing the achievement gap. And, the best part is, these systems don’t cost schools a thing.