5 Ideas for Setting a School Culture Vision


A well-developed vision for school culture serves as the point by which all activities and work can be re-calibrated. In my last post, Build Purposeful Culture, Get Powerful Results, I outlined the five keys to building culture used within our schools at United Schools Network (USN):

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

Setting your vision for school culture is hard work. It’s not something that will be accomplished in a single session. While vision-setting shouldn’t include endless conversations, this is a process that will take time. And some will see vision-setting as something to dread. Your first job as the leader is to frame this process as an opportunity to define what the team values. A strong vision will bring direction, purpose, and commitment to everyone associated with the school community. 

Here are five ideas that may help you on the vision-setting journey.

#1 Help Others Recognize the Value of a School Culture Vision

A strong vision for school culture is worth the time investment, but not everyone on the team may recognize this initially. Full disclosure, I didn’t really get the idea of vision early in my career. Spending time on something like writing a school culture vision statement seemed like unnecessary fluff. I subscribed more to Bill Belichick’s do your job philosophy. You have an assignment, and you execute on the assignment. A credible leader holds you accountable for not living up to standards.  I now understand that this is only part of the formula for success.

There are two things you should consider at this point in the process. First, who will be a part of your vision-setting team? My suggestion is to include a broad representation of staff by role, experience, subject, etc. These folks should have a strong commitment to the vision-setting process. They should also have significant capacity for problem-solving as well as strong relationships within your school community. Second, keep in mind that buy-in for anything new typically comes after success and not before. Key players within the school who have social capital can help promote buy-in and engagement from the larger school community.

#2 Search for Strong Examples

At United Preparatory Academy-State St. (UPrep), a high-performing school in United Schools Network, the staff has created a purposeful and supportive school culture. They’ve anchored their work in a strong vision statement: Joyful scholars with a passion for learning and an investment in college. When I read the statement, I get a mental picture for what I expect to see when I walk into the school. My experience has been that UPrep’s school culture matches their vision statement.

Seek out and visit schools that have executed on a strong vision for school culture. Look for schools that serve a similar student population that have strong student achievement results. School visits have played a critical role in the development of many of USN’s best practices.

#3 Develop a Clear, Coherent Vision

Close your eyes and imagine 5-10-20 years from now. All that you believe and all that you are planning for your school has come to fruition. What then, does student culture in your school look like? Create a mental picture. Write down what that future state looks like, feels like, and sounds like.

After the initial brainstorm, draft a culture vision statement. Keep in mind the following as you write:

  • Vision is the change you seek to create;
  • It should be aspirational but attainable;
  • It serves as the point by which all activities and work can be re-calibrated;
  • Keep it short (<13 words) so it can be memorized and easily communicated;
  • Keep it present or future tense and forward looking.
SPI-Photo-005_Student and teacher working 1 on 1_2014_lr.jpg

#4 Bring the Vision Alive

The vision statement is the starting point for building strong culture, but it won’t be enough to bring this culture alive. Both staff and students will need more explicit guidance on what the vision looks like in practice. UPrep’s School Director Ben Pacht has written a Culture Manual that clearly communicates the many culture, discipline and management systems in place at the school. This manual also outlines the common language shared by staff and students. 

Two excerpts from the manual really stand out in making its vision clear. First is a section entitled What It Means to be a UPrep Team Member. Second is a section entitled College-Prep Focus. Both help to bring the vision statement alive and can be accessed below.

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

SPI Resource: College-Prep Focus

#5 Build a Plan for Moving from Vision to System

At UPrep, the Culture Manual is the foundation for the plan for carrying out the school’s vision for school culture. Staff learn the culture systems and procedures during a summer training institute before the school year begins. Students are immersed in the school’s culture during a three-day Culture Camp during the first week of the year. Both staff and students have time to learn and practice using the culture systems and the common language used to speak about the systems during these intentionally designed, start-of-year programs. From this strong start, Ben’s team works to continuously monitor school culture throughout the year to ensure it stays aligned to the vision.

UPrep’s outstanding results have made the investment in culture  vision-setting well worth the effort.