In January 2019, Yonas Michael began his current role as the head principal of Ames Middle School, a position that allowed him to return to Ames after spending time in Maryland to be with his family. Superintendent Risner entrusted him with the mission of strengthening the culture and achievement at Ames Middle School at a time of great transition in the building.
As a school leader, a top commitment is to improve student learning. But before jumping into student achievement data, examining the current culture of the building is paramount. “You can have all of the great structures in place. You can hire the best teachers, you can have the best materials and best programs, but if the culture isn’t right or healthy in the building, then none of those things are going to be successful,” said Michael.
Describing the elements that create a positive culture can be tricky, but it starts with connections. This includes with each other, as well as the building, and applies to both students and staff. “You want them in an environment where they feel welcomed and loved. And that’s from both a student and staff perspective. You can’t get initiatives off the ground and running when your culture isn’t healthy,” said Michael. But creating culture does not just happen: it requires work and is never complete.
Get Voices in the Room
One of the first things that Michael did when he arrived at Ames Middle School was to meet with both staff and student leaders to be able to hear how they viewed the school. Coming in mid-year, Michael was able to immediately gather student input and begin making improvements based on specific feedback from many different students. The students continue to reach out to both teachers and administrators to share their questions, concerns, and suggestions.
Being responsive to student concerns was a way to get buy-in from the students, but it also allowed for having honest conversations with staff around what it means to respond to behavior by teaching rather than just providing consequences. Rather than solely punishing a student for being tardy, uncovering the root cause behind the tardy behavior helps both teachers and students to create better plans to avoid the unwanted behavior in the future. This work was taken up by a great team of teachers as they worked during the spring to understand the District’s new Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program. They identified clear expectations and developed lessons to support all students in meeting those expectations. By shifting the focus to teaching and away from punishments, everyone at AMS can have stronger relationships and a safer, more predictable environment.
Additionally, to support both teachers and students, Michael was able to assemble a new team of associate principals at the building. Nicole Coronado, Associate Principal of Climate and Culture, was hired specifically to continue working to strengthen the culture of the building. Coronado is working to gather data to monitor those improvements.
Surveys are one way to get quantifiable data, and Ames Middle School has surveyed both students and staff over the past year. Soft indicators are another, and perhaps a more personal way, to get insight on how the building is operating. While survey data is still being collected, feedback is already showing positive changes. Principal Michael has had maintenance staff with years of experience in the District express to him how the building feels different this year. Teachers have echoed this sentiment saying it has been the best start to a school year they have ever experienced. As the year has progressed, Michael and the administrative team have worked to continue to support teachers as the grind of the school year moves forward. From staff meetings with celebrations to a roving “Sunshine Cart” of treats to acknowledging positives each week through “Wednesday Wins,” the AMS staff is continually recognizing the great work going on in each classroom.
The work is noticeable. Ames Middle School Counselor Rachel Krofta, said, “The shift in the culture in the building has been monumental – you can feel it when you walk in the building. Staff and students are happier and feel more supported. There are clear expectations, processes, and procedures in place as well as more visible support and clear communication from leaders in the building. When adults and students know what to expect they feel a sense of safety.”
Strengthening communication has been a focus of the administrative team, including ensuring clear two-way communication with both parents and staff. Ames Middle School Counselor Jennifer Haglund has appreciated the efforts and feels that it has minimized confusion and dramatically raised staff morale. “Our culture this year has improved a great deal. Administrators and the building leadership team are very intentional in building a supportive culture and community of learners for both staff and students.”
A staff lens is important, but schools are for students and their perspective matters. 8th graders CJ and Jude, 7th graders Isaiah and Joel, and 6th graders Skylar and Zach, recently shared their perspectives on building culture. For the 7th and 8th graders who walked the same halls last year, they noted the difference in structure and discipline and applauded the change. For them, the consistency has provided comfort and a sense of calm around the building.
These students were also all very familiar with this year’s theme of Better Together. In the classroom, on social media, and even on Ames Middle School apparel, Better Together is a reminder to everyone that AMS depends on each member to strengthen the culture of the building. Thanks to a generous donation from Blue Sky Orthodontics, every student received a shirt at the beginning of the year. By wearing these shirts, students are able to show AMS pride and demonstrate to the community that success does not happen in isolation.
Every student has a different version of what better together means. New to the middle school, both Zach and Skylar expressed how fun, inviting, and caring their 6th-grade teachers are. In 7th grade, Isaiah goes out of his way to give students high fives in the hallway, helping to create a fun culture of camaraderie. CJ is the type of 8th grader that teachers remember throughout their career due to his charming and contagious personality, ability to self-advocate, brimming smile and caring heart.
“Better together means to stand up for kids. If you see something that is not right in school, do something about it and don’t be rude. I think it means to help people do the right thing.” CJ has gone out of his way to sit with students at lunch who may be sitting alone.
Student perspectives have also inspired professional development opportunities for teachers through their conversations with administrators. Every professional development meeting has components of PBIS and critical consciousness as well as discussions about how to improve learning for each student academically. Students are always the driving force, with each staff member focusing on improving in order to play their own critical role in becoming Better Together.
Additionally, these meetings are a unique opportunity for teachers and staff to strengthen the building culture as it is a rare occasion where everyone is together. Last year, Michael felt as though his staff was not functioning well together as a team and he attributed that to building layout and not knowing each other between grade levels. This year, every meeting starts with celebrations and an inclusion activity to get teachers to know each other. This engagement produces laughter and a bond that cannot be produced over email.
Every meeting, the entire staff sings happy birthday to colleagues led by the music department. This act of silliness was not lost by School Counselor Haglund. “As I observed the entire staff singing, I realized we had never done this before. Upon reflection, I understand the power of the moment. While singing Happy Birthday is a very simple act, it is something that we do with friends and family.” There is also structured time for teachers to send 3 positive messages home to parents in order to reinforce positive behaviors that are present in every space at school. That’s just one-way PBIS has helped to support stronger relationships and classroom performance.
While progress is being made to strengthen the culture of the building, it will never be completely “finished”. Becoming Better Together is a journey of knowing ourselves, our students, and our families.