On Purpose: How Great School Cultures Form Strong Character

The culture of a school shapes its students by teaching them habits of thought and action that stay with them for life. Great school cultures produce happy, successful, ethical students. But where do these cultures come from? How do they work? Can one school replicate another’s success?

These are the questions Samuel Casey Carter answers in On Purpose. Carter is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Education Reform, former president of National Heritage Academies, a charter school management company, and author of two previous books on education. In On Purpose, he makes a straightforward argument for the value of thoughtfully and purposefully forming school culture.

The majority of the book consists of case studies of 12 schools that have developed and maintained great cultures. Of the twelve, ten are public (two of those are charters, three are magnets), and the two private schools are religious. The schools cover a wide range of income and diversity, but they all produce students who achieve more than students at other schools in their areas.

Before presenting the case studies, Carter highlights the four common traits of great school cultures. These are (1) a strong belief that culture determines outcomes, (2) a nurturing but demanding culture, (3) a culture committed to student success, and (4) a culture of people, principles, and purpose.

A culture of some kind will form at every school, but a culture created with purpose can yield greatness. As Carter writes,

[G]reatness comes when [schools] invite the opportunity for greatness in others, when they demand principled action and genuinely encourage their students to pursue life’s purpose. Today, this means that schools once again need to become places that teach about the true, the good, and the beautiful, and to do so, they must create an environment in which the true, the good, the beautiful can be experienced firsthand.

This argument should sound familiar to anyone who has worked with CHARACTER COUNTS!, and we’re pleased to note that two CC! schools are included in the book: Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Illinois; and Atlantis Elementary in Port St. John, Florida.

The Hinsdale chapter highlights the school’s focus on the respectful relationships between students and faculty – and among faculty, and the willingness to listen to students and respond to their concerns. (Click here to read more about Hinsdale.)

Like Hinsdale, Atlantis Elementary puts relationships first. The culture founded on the Six Pillars results in students, teachers, and administrators all showing greater respect to one another and holding each other in higher regard. Principal Sherry Tomlinson says, “The pillars form the basis of how the school thinks and speaks about character.” As with Hinsdale, the focus at Atlantis is on the individual. Students get the attention they need, and teachers work together to improve instruction, develop professionally, and build learning communities.

By telling the stories of Hinsdale, Atlantis, and the other ten schools, Carter highlights what works and what doesn’t in our current system. Great schooling means creating a nurturing but demanding culture that is committed to the success of every student, in life as well as in standardized tests. Carter’s diverse examples and clear explication prove that every school has the potential to be great.