Build Purposeful Culture, Get Powerful Results


School culture work is hard. If built and maintained purposefully, a solid culture is learning’s best friend. If not, even the very best teachers will struggle to provide a productive learning environment.

UPrep - A Study in Purpose

Walk into United Preparatory Academy-State St. (UPrep), one of four schools within the United Schools Network, and you can feel the urgency. The physical space is intentionally organized; positive messages and college pennants line the hallways. Walk into Ms. Routson’s kindergarten classroom, and you’ll see students eagerly raising their hands to share their math problem-solving strategies. In just a short visit, you can tell she has unbelievably high expectations of her students.  

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In a hundred different ways, from daily staff huddle and lesson feedback meetings before students arrive, to students stepping off the bus greeted by a firm handshake from School Director Ben Pacht, to strong hallway transitions and an orderly lunch period, UPrep students hear the message that nothing is as important as learning. These are the elements of a purposeful culture.

Defying the Odds

UPrep is mainly staffed by teachers with just a couple of years of experience. More than 90% of UPrep’s students are economically disadvantaged and most didn’t attend a preschool program. The surrounding neighborhood is plagued by crime. State tests in reading and math were administered for the first time this past spring. These are all factors typically associated with low achievement. And yet, UPrep not only outperformed their peers in nearby traditional public schools, they closed the achievement gap with their more affluent peers across the state.

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Building Purposeful Culture

How was Ben and his team able to overcome so many odds to achieve these dramatic results? The answer is really simple- students spend their days learning and teachers spend their days teaching. Of course, for anyone who has spent any time in a school, especially a high-poverty school, achieving results like this is anything but easy. 

Key to these results was having a plan in place for building a purposeful culture before staff or students ever stepped foot into the building. During a planning year, Ben visited high-performing elementary schools across the country, and he wrote a Culture Manual after studying their best practices. The manual addresses USN’s 5 Keys to Purposeful Culture including: 

  1. Set the vision
  2. Create a shared language
  3. Identify & design culture systems
  4. Install culture systems through deliberate practice, and
  5. Codify & continuously improve culture systems.

Each of the five keys plays an ongoing and important role in unlocking a powerful, achievement-oriented culture at UPrep. Click the link below to read What It Means to be a UPrep Team Member, a key vision-setting excerpt from UPrep’s Culture Manual.

SPI Resource: What It Means to be a UPrep Team Member

More on Purposeful Culture

At the School Performance Institute, we are studying school design best practices like UPrep’s culture systems and sharing them through our Purposeful Workshop Series. In SPI’s next few blog posts, we’ll dive deeper into each of the 5 Keys to Purposeful Culture, and share a number of helpful resources related to each of the keys.

Transform Your School Culture

If you are interested in learning more about USN’s culture practices, join us for our Purposeful Culture & Procedures™ workshop in which you will learn how to design and execute strong classroom and school systems and procedures and how to build a positive, joyous school culture.