Lusher Charter Elementary School
Lusher Charter Elementary School was nominated and invited join the to the Ashoka Changemaker Schools Network in the Fall of 2012. The Tulane University Research Team worked with Ashoka to identify schools in their regions of interest. This included a school in Austin, one in Dallas, Texas, Washington, D.C, and Lusher Charter Elementary in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The Tulane research team’s findings were similar to the practices highlighted in Ashoka’s evaluation of Lusher Charter Elementary School for the Changemaker Schools network selection process. Lusher’s practices are grouped in to six areas: Curriculum, School-wide Practices, Student Engagement, Parent Engagement, Professional Development and Sustainability.
Curriculum: The Lusher Charter Elementary School Curriculum is described in its mission statement as a developmentally appropriate learning environment in which high academics, comprehensive arts education, and the celebration of individuality and diversity enable each child to achieve as a learner, a person, and a valuable member of our society.1
What makes Lusher most unique is the selection of a variety of strategies that support the social and emotional learning of the whole school community including students, faculty, staff, and community members. There is not one curriculum used but an emphasis on development of the individual and the community. Morning meetings, a successful Responsive Classroom practice are held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday where the whole school meets to start the day with announcements, music, and art. These meetings allow for the administrators, faculty, students and parents to share in the leadership and community building on the campus. An example of a Morning meeting is posted on the Lusher web site. It is just one example of how everyone at Lusher works together to develop at strong and diverse community.2
On Wednesdays, each class has its own morning meeting, also known as their Caring Counts meeting. Each homeroom class meets with his or her teacher, sits in a circle and discusses what is going on in their lives and at school as well as problems that they see in the classroom. They get to the root of the problems and come up with solutions or new rules together. A variety of strategies are used including “Filling the Bucket” and The Feelings Chart.
The challenge for Lusher was improving the performance of a school highly recognized for its student achievement and arts program while retaining what made the school unique. This led the school to strengthen its empathy-based roots. Improved communication systems occurred naturally throughout the school, leading to stronger relationships among teachers, parents, and students.
One of the empathy-based communication channels included daily Morning Meetings, a practice that had long been part of the culture of the school before Ms. Nelson. This tradition included announcements from the principal and a song led by the music teacher on guitar. Today, under her direction, it includes announcements by students, parents, staff and community members. The opening song may now include a band consisting of parents and staff, a parent singing a jingle to communicate an upcoming community event, professional musicians from the community, or a handful of students sharing their composed music. This evolution to a more inclusive meeting with the community was organic and necessitated building a sense of trust across the community.
Parents were asked to make announcements themselves instead of requesting it of the principal. This simple change began a transformation of the daily meeting that retains the purpose and spirit since its inception but reflects the changing landscape in communication among stakeholders.
The school’s core values of kindness, respect, hard work, and responsibility were established long before Positive Behavior Intervention Support plans were required in schools. After the storm, the administration asked how long-standing values could be built upon and communicated in a different way. Morning Meeting began being used as a vehicle to focus on these core values. Soon the meeting included Ms. Nelson sharing brief personal stories tied to these values, as well as modeling, moments of gratitude, recognition of students, staff and parents, and other messages that connected the community. Then one day, instead of closing Morning Meeting with reminding everyone to have a nice day, the principal asked the students, “What’s the Number One Rule?” Students responded, “Be Kind.” Today the entire community responds to this question in unison: “Be Kind.” Now this rule has been transformed into a design by a local folk artist that is repeated on t-shirts and other items throughout the community. It is the common language used by everyone at school and in the home. The added emphasis on kindness is now intrinsically part of Lusher’s DNA. Students are routinely encouraged to live all of the core values. They know what it means to “fill the buckets” of others. They connect the core values with characters in stories and experiences in their own lives. The strong communication of the school’s values deeply affects the daily work of the school.
The daily, community-wide Morning Meeting is such a sacred part of the day, shifting to a weekly “Caring Counts” meeting on Wednesdays was a major transition. It did not take long to discover that each classroom could strengthen its community through conversation, problem solving, and application. The scale of this weekly classroom-based morning meeting allowed for intimate communication and discussion that is not possible in the Morning Meeting, which includes more than 800 participants. As a result of adapting the larger Morning Meeting process to the classroom context, students were able to voice their concerns, discuss those concerns together, and design solutions at a classroom level. For example, first graders in Therese Fitzpatrick’ class were dealing with conflict during recess, so they centered their project-based learning projects on the issue and created new games based on their own criteria. The intimate classroom morning meeting setting, combined with the relationship-building work that Lusher does through the larger Morning Meeting and the school-wide “Be Kind” efforts, allowed the class to get to the root of the problem. In the end, the first graders taught the games to others, and communicated the new games and their rules on posters displayed around the perimeter of the playground. Similar problem solving is routinely applied throughout the school.
The empathy-based communication skills and processes that students use to solve problems in the class Caring Counts meetings have enabled them to be empathic leaders outside of their classrooms. For example, students’ ideas were used to remodel restrooms and to design the school playground. Students also have a Caring Counts Student Leadership Team to help build a strong culture around empathy. The drumming class that was added to the after-school offerings was a suggestion by a fourth grader, and the school newspaper club was also a student idea. The service and recycling clubs were both introduced by teachers.
While the school has always had an active parent organization that supports the school, other channels of communication were created following Hurricane Katrina. When parents discussed concerns about the school cafeteria with the administration, a group of staff, parents and administrators came together to create an improvement plan that resulted in a complete facelift and redesign of the cafeteria. Conversations about nutrition led to the addition of a salad bar, providing more fruits and vegetables to students K-5. This collaborative leadership across school stakeholders would not have been possible without parents having comfort with the school and knowledge of appropriate communication channels to share their talents, expertise and ideas. This comfort and knowledge in turn would not have been possible without the strong relationships established through school-wide cultural practices that included and are accessible to parents, like Morning Meeting. This same collaboration process rooted in sharing concerns, forming collaborative cross-stakeholder teams, and providing teams with the authority and resources to implement solutions took place when the school worked on its campus plan, playground plan, and safety plan.
The collaboration process was also used to improve Lusher’s communication process itself. When the principal noticed an increase in questions and concerns from parents and teachers regarding communication, the community was surveyed for input. Six main areas of concern were identified so that parents and staff could work together during a solutions-driven meeting. Each table was given a summary of each area of concern based on the survey data, and participants brainstormed solutions. This resulted in an overhaul of the weekly newsletter that had been sent home by hard copy for years to a weekly emailed newsletter with color photos and links, bringing parents into the classroom and school. It also resulted in improved teacher websites, a suggestion box and a revised communication policy.
At the heart of Lusher’s successful communication strategies are teachers who effectively model empathy-based communication for students, parents, and each other. Like students who learn through the empathy-based morning meeting discussions and parents who participate in empathy-based problem-solving processes, Lusher staff members learn about and practice empathy-based communication in their professional development, which includes school leadership opportunities, study groups, and training.
At Lusher, school leadership involves all staff. The leadership team does not only include administrators, but also a teacher representative from each grade level, an art teacher, and a physical education teacher. Together, they attend conferences, watch videos, and read articles and books; then they discuss instructional changes, and brainstorm solutions to operational issues and school improvement needs. Since a stakeholder from each type of instructional staff at the school is represented in the leadership team, communication flows between the leadership team and all educators at Lusher. The short line of communication between school leadership and staff at the school enables all staff to share their views on school practices, as well as take initiative on school-wide challenges. These conversations resulted in school-wide improvement of instructional strategies and creation of splinter teams. It also led to “extended planning days” so that teacher teams could work together for a full day each quarter to improve their instructional programming.
Whenever the school implements a change, a cross-stakeholder group of staff members forms a study group to monitor the effect of the change. Study groups in the past have focused on discipline practices, assessments, and writing instruction. One of the newest study groups is evaluating how to improve intrinsic motivation and steps toward a conscious discipline model. In study groups, members analyze data results and consider how the new approach can be modified to strengthen its effectiveness. Lusher also integrates empathy-based communication into teacher training. Three teacher leaders at the school observe teachers and give feedback to improve student engagement strategies, arts integration, and project-based learning. None of the feedback on specific teachers is shared with administrators; instead, general data is shared, and the teacher leaders work with their mentees to improve. By taking the perspective of a teacher-learner, Lusher has created a space where teachers can work with their colleagues to grow and improve their practice.
The Tulane partnership, along with Lusher’s Ashoka recognition, guided the creation of a collaborative team with a sole focus on building empathy and social emotional skills so that both were equally important to academic rigor. The team includes staff from Lusher and Tulane, including the school social worker and behavior interventionist.
Lusher staff continue to learn about new strategies that support the development of empathy skills through social and emotional learning. Working with Amy McConnell and Tulane University Teacher Certification Program, a professional development workshop was held with Amy McConnell Franklin sharing strategies from her book Choose To Change: A Step By Step Teaching Guide for Fostering Emotional Intelligence in the Classroom.3 Lusher is making great efforts to share the successful practices. A presentation/panel was held at the Ashoka U Exchange at Brown in February of 2014 and in September of 2015 at Tulane University.. Other universities in the organization and their partners learned about the successful strategies employed. A panel discussion with Amy McConnell Franklin, Lusher Caring Counts team members and members of the educational community was held in March of 2014 and September of 2015. Teachers from Lusher along with Tulane faculty and students participated in two day boot camps with the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking and the Smithsonian Design Institute for Educators. Lusher is also partnering with a new Charter School in New Orleans and they are sharing ideas, strategies, and professional development opportunities.
Listening to the members of the community requires truly taking the time to reflect and engage in the ideas of others. Lusher creates the communication channels for school community members to share their ideas and the time to reflect on those ideas in school-wide cultural practices, parent engagement strategies, and professional development practices. The result is strong relationships between school stakeholders as well as more engagement and innovation. Building empathic communication into school-wide culture practices, parent engagement, and professional development does not mean that the school implements every idea that comes to the table. It does mean, however, that the school learns from the perspectives of all stakeholders and gains ideas that could strengthen the school. The results are worth the reflection and openness. As the school continues to demonstrate that empathy-based communication and implicit teaching of social and emotional strategies paves the way toward innovative teaching and learning.