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3 Pillars to Build On When Opening a New School

3 Pillars to Build On When Opening a New School

School Districts  |  School Leadership

Planning and opening a new school is an exciting yet daunting task. As a leader of a brand new school, you are involved in every aspect of what the school day will look and feel like, and how it will be remembered. When you begin to design experiences that equip students with the skills to fulfill your school’s mission and vision, consider what your strategic priorities should be to get your goals accomplished. Think about yourself as a 6th grader on the first day of school: what carefully planned academic and non-academic experiences would you need to best prepare you for the rest of middle school? What instructional skills would your teachers need to engage you and your peers in rigorous work throughout the day? What type of environment would allow you to grow and reflect on your progress in a meaningful way?

The Core Four White Paper CTADuring my time as a teacher and leader, I discussed these answers at length with my school team. As a young man who ran around middle school like his hair was on fire, answering these questions as a teacher or leader often forced me to think outside of the box while focusing on the foundational priorities of our school. Time and time again these foundational priorities formed three pillars that guided our mission and our work. In order to best align your work and your vision, especially when creating a new school setting, planning around three specific topics can clear a pathway towards the implementation of your vision in a sustainable way, with a path of meaningful development moving forward.

While the opportunity to create the perfect learning environment for students and teachers can be inspiring, it can also be overwhelming. There are so many things to do, decisions to be made, and outcomes to consider. We have found many schools asking us: where do I start, what do I start with, who do I start with? While working with Principals to open new schools we have seen the three consistent pillars of Culture, School Operations, and Professional Learning serve as sound foundations for building an engaging academic program for students and teachers.


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Before getting started, it is important to take time to reflect on these three pillars and how they look in year 0, month 1, month 6, and 1 year in:

  • How do you plan on intentionally establishing a school culture that will allow you to fulfill your mission and vision?
  • How do you want your school to run day to day? What about days with some irregularity (parent-teacher conferences, assemblies, fire drills)?
  • What type of professional learning experiences will your staff need to start the founding year, and what will they need to develop into effective teachers and leaders in the future?


We all want a great culture in our buildings, and the steps needed to create an environment where students and teachers embrace curiosity and growth have to be intentional. Considering the talents, interests, and strengths of your school community and how to leverage them effectively is key. Being able to find reflective staff members who can collectively maintain a high bar of excellence, and who have the potential to develop into the teachers and leaders of the future, is critical before you get students into your building. Establishing this culture in your building allows for all other priorities to be met with a mindset of growth, adaptability, and innovation. Culture is much more than how students get along with teachers and vice versa. It’s about how each day, every member of your school community takes an intentional step towards fulfilling the mission and vision that helped the school open its doors.

  • Mindset: It is essential to talk about a growth mindset with your staff as it will help guide the culture. When considering the mission and vision of the school, it’s critical to unpack and understand the necessary mindsets to achieve this vision, the mindsets that can detract from it, and how to leverage stakeholder mindsets to support the work and tasks at hand. There will need to be a Plan A, B, and often a Plan C to accomplish school goals. Having a team willing to learn and grow is key.
    • Example: Creating a meaningful way for teachers and coaches to reflect after classroom observations that allows room for the conversation to be about open, ongoing feedback, improvement, and professional development. A great way to do this is by standing at the door where teachers come in and greeting them in the morning, the same way they should greet their students.
  • Mission and Vision: Without developing a mission and vision you will have a hard time developing strategies to achieve your school goals. The link between school goals and specific ways to achieve them will allow team members to clarify what their place is in bringing the mission and vision to life.
    • Example: Before every purchase, ask yourself, "Is this purchase helping our school with our mission and vision?" If yes, great. If not, don’t purchase it.
  • Parent Engagement: Research shows students are more likely to succeed when parents are engaged and involved in their child's school. It is important to start off parent engagement strong by having them collaborate on decisions.
    • Example: For parents, host Town Halls so that the community can be collectively involved in deciding important items – such as the school name and mascot.
  • Expectations: Clear expectations that are upheld for everyone are important to establish with your teachers to gain buy-in, and building expectations collaboratively, with different members of your community, is a great way to build that buy-in.
    • Example: Whether it’s the PTA, the SGA, or Grade Level Teams, creating the time for the development and reflection on team norms together builds investment across all groups.

School Operations

From selecting a lunch vendor to student technology, how your school functions is a direct result of those you have hired to operationalize the mission and vision of the school. Each decision made should be made with the end goal in mind, and should be aligned with the mission.

  • Hiring: Understand the skill sets you will need in teachers, leaders, and other staff members to set a sound foundation and build upon it in years 1-3 and beyond. What professional learning experiences would you like your staff members to have had BEFORE they enter your building?
    • Example: Finding leaders and teachers who have experience with your population of students and families, and who have the desire and potential to grow and develop.
  • Scheduling: It is crucial to find a team that understands the elements of district mandates, state requirements, and that can work efficiently with school team members and district leaders to ensure your schedule runs smoothly. Your master schedule defines when your teachers meet with students and for how long.
    • Example: Determine your goals and priorities for your school and list them out on sticky notes. Then manipulate them to meet the scheduling requirements from various stakeholders to make sure the school meets goals on both sides.
  • Your Building: While getting to know your building is important, knowing who is coming to your building, from where, and why is just as important. Really understanding the complexities of those families that you serve can provide school leaders with the necessary insight to plan and host community events, as well as understand the importance of having spaces for electives to take place.
    • Example: Understanding the importance of movement and how it impacts student engagement can allow school teams to be creative in how they utilize co-located common spaces, or areas of the school not originally designed for physical activity.

Professional Learning

Having an understanding of the professional experiences you’d like your staff to have prior to joining your team can help decide what experiences you’d like to provide for them to ensure their growth and development.

  • Instructional Core: The school leader and the leadership team will need to work to either define the instructional core themselves or work with their district partners to roll out the definition. The instructional core will guide observations, school goals, evaluations, PD, and teacher development. With an unclear core, quality instruction can become nebulous,
    • Example: What do you want PLC time to look like, feel like, and sound like? What are the non-negotiables or expectations for content? A great place to have some of these listed for staff to refer to is in the staff handbook.
  • Professional Development Plan: It is always important to have a plan because without one, you have no true direction. Developing an instructional core is the first step in creating a professional development plan that is reflective of your school academic goals and priorities. Without developing this plan, professional development can feel disjointed and not on par with that teachers need to be successful.
    • Example: Take half a day with your administrative staff and list out the PD you want to cover for the year. Then plug in the dates onto a calendar to hold yourselves accountable, and use it to backward plan your sessions.
  • Model Professional Learning: With a clearly defined instructional core and professional development plan, personalized professional development can be tailored to meet staff members where they are, and support them in growing and developing to fulfill their personal goals, and also fulfill overall school goals. While general professional development is always needed, personalizing it to staff member needs can only be done with a clear plan of what is required.
    • Example: Provide your teachers with a Professional Development choice board or use data to guide what individual professional development they need.

Although planning and opening a school can challenge a person or a team greatly, it’s through those challenging times that concrete plans are formed and aligned in a meaningful and strategic way. Prioritizing The 3 Pillars of Culture, School Operations, and Professional Learning allows school teams to start off the way they mean to carry on. School Culture and Operations that are established thoughtfully and tied to a school’s mission and vision in year 1, can seem to run like a well-oiled machine in years 5-6. But without attention to detail in years 0 and 1, those foundational pieces will fall on the school leadership to be reinvented every year.

Attempting to execute an unclear instructional vision during year 1 can lead to unclear academic expectations for teachers and leaders, a compromised bar for what rigor should look like, and muddy the water for future teacher and leader development. Spending time and effort to establish a clear vision and plan for School Culture, Operations, and Professional Learning is paramount. These pillars allow school teams to actively anticipate and navigate the ever-changing ecosystem that a school is, while moving forward, towards the future, with clear expectations and goals in mind.

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About Dexter Korto and Jill Thompson

Dexter Korto is a Design Principal on the Design and Implementation Team. He began his career in education as a volunteer and mentor in southwest Ohio, which led to him becoming a founding AmeriCorps member of City Year Denver. While in northeast Denver, he became fascinated with education reform policies and their intended and actual impact. After his year of service, Dexter participated in Colorado state senator Mike Johnston’s education policy fellowship. This opportunity allowed Dexter to deeply examine federal, state, and local policies that attempted to address school funding for turnaround and phase out efforts, recovery school districts, and other reform & innovation initiatives nationwide. In his last role before joining EE, Dexter served as a founding member of North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys. He developed culturally relevant curriculum rooted in curricular experiences, a restorative discipline plan, cultural systems that are affirming and realistic. Jill Thompson is an Associate Partner on the Design and Implementation Team where she works closely with schools and district leaders to help them make the shift towards more personalized learning. Prior to working with Education Elements, she was the Director of Personalized Digital Learning at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS). She was responsible for leading the CMS transformation in a highly complex, large urban environment. She developed a personalized data driven model to provide professional learning, and created micro-credentialing learning paths. Jill is a former classroom teacher, who has won multiple awards for being an outstanding educator. She is an authorized Google Education Trainer and Apple Teacher. She grew up in Syracuse NY and currently lives in the Charlotte area. In her free time, Jill enjoys reading, working out and spending time with friends and family.

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