Your School’s Culture: Finding the Right Fit

There are many factors that go into finding the right school for your student. Oftentimes, however, school culture can be overlooked – but it shouldn't be. Here's why, plus advice on finding the best match for your child.

Your child’s school is more than the place they where they learn their A, B, C’s and multiplication tables. It’s a community where they – and the whole family – can grow and thrive. In all the best ways, your chosen school should be a great fit from top to bottom. But one factor that families often overlook is the school’s culture.

Here, we take a look at what culture means in a school community, and how you can find the right match for your child and family.

What is school culture?

Culture can refer to customs, values, and way of life embraced by a group of people with a common race, language or faith. Culture can also refer to a particular educational focus adopted by a school, like a Magnet school or a school focused on career technical education.

“A parent might send their child to a school that will give them the best opportunity along a certain path, like science, technology, engineering, arts or mathematics (STEAM),” says Marsha Lewis, assistant principal at Western International High School in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

“The same goes for students who follow a Career and Technical Education (CTE) path. They expect a culture that will encourage collaboration, a cooperative setting where students have the same mindset and can feel comfortable learning that trade with the same goal or desire. It’s very positive.”

School culture can also be less easily defined. “It’s an abstract idea, and more related to the feeling you get being in the school building,” says Renee Wendt, a math interventionist at Dove Academy of Detroit, a public charter school on Detroit’s east side. “Does it have a family atmosphere? Or something more business like?”

Why does school culture matter?

Because a school’s culture can help make a student and family feel comfortable, the right culture can contribute to effective learning. When a student can look around and feel a genuine sense of inclusion, they can be their authentic selves, Lewis says.

“You can see students feel free to speak, act and embrace who they are. When you don’t see that, it’s the opposite – you see students who don’t feel valued,” says Lewis, who lived in a suburban city in a different state until she reached high school and her family moved to Detroit. “I have seen how it is if you have to assimilate, and how wonderful it can be when you can finally live in your space.”

Inclusion matters, Lewis says, because students ultimately learn better when they feel more confident in their surroundings. “It’s great to see students thrive in like-minded groups that overlap. I absolutely love that. Cultural exchange is very encouraging, and it’s the way we want to see the world,” Lewis adds.

How can the right cultural fit benefit students and families?

Each family is different, and each has its own values and priorities. When the family and school experience a good cultural fit, the family gains more than an appropriate place to provide an education for their child – they gain a community.

“It’s a matter of making sure we are meeting the needs of the families, the students and the parents, and their expectations,” Wendt says. “Maybe they expect a stricter environment, or think their child needs structure and guidelines. Other parents want their child to feel like they are with family.”

Every family expects a high quality of education, and for each family, that path to achievement is slightly different. “If a family places a high value on book learning, then they may choose an environment that reflects this. If they’re more concerned with the whole child, and place an emphasis on social-emotional and other needs, they will look for this and value this in an environment,” Wendt says.

How can families learn the culture of a school?

“The simplest thing to start with is Google,” Wendt suggests. Schools have social media accounts and families can get a good feel for school culture through posts, as well as the school’s own website. “Check out their missions and values,” she says.

Another resource Wendt suggests is the Detroit Parents’ Guide to Schools – online or in magazine format – which has information on each public charter and district school in Detroit. Each school profile contains a Culture Section with descriptions of the school’s culture of safety, as well as its points of pride.

“Most importantly, visit the school to get a feeling,” Wendt encourages. How are you greeted when you walk in? How are you addressed? Are people smiling? Are students walking silently in a straight line, or are there letters, numbers and colors on the floor guiding children along the way? “If you are looking for an interactive environment and you see things like this, then you will know that is an indicator of the school’s culture,” Wendt says.

While test scores are an important indicator of student proficiency, they don’t show growth over time, and this is information not found through a simple internet search. “If you have the opportunity to talk with the principal, a great question to ask is ‘what is your growth rate at this school?'” Wendt suggests. “If a fourth grade student came in at a first grade level, but got to a third grade level in six months, that’s a phenomenal achievement.”

Finally, nothing can replace a simple introduction to other families in the school community. “Maybe go to the school during dismissal or arrival and talk to parents,” Wendt says. “Get real-life experiences from people if you have the ability to do so.”

For more information on Detroit’s public charter and district schools and other helpful resources for families visit the Detroit Parents’ Guide to Schools website.


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