Can physical structure promote learning culture? When Perspectives Charter Schools co-founders Kimberlie Day and Diana Shulla-Cose decided they did not want to place a metal detector in their 365-student flagship school in Chicago, that was the argument they had to make to skeptical neighbors.
At Perspectives, the question of school culture and climate is not a side note—it’s at the core of the school’s mission.
“Even if you don’t build it, a culture will be established. And if it’s not deliberate, it’s not as productive as students need it to be,” says Day. Students and all staff members are trained in “A Disciplined Life,” a set of 26 principles laid out by school founders and associated with productive lives, divided into self-perception (for instance: “Seek wisdom”), communication (“Solve conflicts peacefully”), and productivity (“Be reliable”).
“The culture’s allowed us to go into a community where the graduation rate was 35 percent and have a grad rate of 85 percent,” Day says.
The charter network’s flagship building was designed with the goal of facilitating that culture. A large “family room” in the center of the building provides a place for students to congregate, and is an open space for various meetings and groups.
“Having the triangular shape where everything’s connected means you can literally see the whole school. It makes it really easy to have a pulse on the school,” says Patti Buckland, who teaches 9th and 11th grade math.
The walls are decorated with the school’s principles. “It’s a constant reminder,” says Anissa Wilson, an 18-year-old senior.
Some features that might raise safety concerns—the lack of metal detectors, for example—signal to students that they’re trusted. Students have lockers, which some schools have removed to prevent the storage of weapons or drugs. The building’s windows open and close, so students can get fresh air.
“The goal is, we’re a family at each grade level and as a school. ... We’re not people who’d take things out of lockers,” Day says. “Truth be told, stuff still happens. But in every case, a student has told a teacher. Truly, the culture of ‘A Disciplined Life’ is what’s protecting us.”
Wilson says the school feels like a safe place to learn, and she notes the absence of incidents like fights that she hears about from friends at other public schools. “Our school doesn’t tolerate that,” she says.
The Perspectives network’s other four buildings are located in more typical school buildings, with cinder block walls and long hallways of classrooms. And while “A Disciplined Life” also is used at the network’s other schools, “you can feel the culture in the [flagship] building,” says Day.