How Strong School Culture Drives Student Achievement

School culture is the secret to school success. My research shows how a culture built on the shared belief that students are capable of achievement is crucial to strong academics, closing the achievement gap and creating educational equity.

Too often, schools are defined by demographic data and test scores. While measurable academic achievement is important, it’s more important to understand how school culture can create an environment in which students are ready and motivated to learn. I’ve seen this firsthand at St. Paul’s Harding Senior High School, where I’ve spent the past five years conducting research on how a positive school culture is formed and sustained.

I recently published an article on MinnPost detailing the ways in which Harding excels at both educating students and creating a school culture that encourages achievement, supports diversity and provides multiple opportunities for participation in extra-curricular and after-school activities. The article was intended to offer a different view of Harding from the more negative one portrayed in the City Pages. While that article did raise important questions about how schools have struggled – often with insufficient funds and staffing – to deal with implementing the Strong Schools, Strong Communities 2.0 (SSSC) full inclusion policy instituted in the St. Paul public school system, its depiction of Harding is different from the one I’ve encountered while conducting my research.

Harding isn’t perfect. The problems detailed in the City Pages article are serious concerns. But after spending five years observing teachers and students at Harding, my impression of the school is very positive; it’s a highly successful urban school staffed by teachers dedicated to building a strong school culture built on a shared belief in the abilities of their students.

School Culture Breeds Student Success

Harding Senior High School is a vibrant, inner-city school that reflects the diversity of its community. Teachers at Harding conquer challenges that more affluent districts don’t face. In fact, 83% of its student body qualifies for free or reduced breakfast and lunch, while more than 40% of its students are English Language Learners. Despite these challenges, its reading test scores have steadily risen, and Harding was recognized in 2013 as a “Celebration School” under Minnesota’s Multiple Measurement Rating system.

I first started working at Harding five years ago to evaluate the school’s participation in Saint Paul Public School’s “Turnaround” program (funded through the U.S. Department of Education). My work has continued more recently with a grant from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. My field of study is anthropology, and I’ve conducted ethnographic research at Harding based on long-term observation, interviews and the collection of documents.

My research has identified a few major factors involved in creating a school environment that spurs student success. The first factor is an “improvement-oriented” school culture among teachers and staff. This is a strong set of shared beliefs among teachers about the school’s mission and the extent to which they are involved with charting the overall direction of the institution. At Harding, the teachers demonstrate an impressive ability to solve problems as a group. They cultivate and bring together their best thinking to address challenges, even over the summer.

The second major factor in a healthy school culture is a fundamental belief in the ability of students to learn and achieve. This is a deeply embedded belief at Harding; teachers don’t think poorly of students and work to provide many ways for students to feel involved and motivated. This helps build non-cognitive “character skills” like perseverance, confidence and a sense of belonging. At Harding, teachers go to great lengths to provide these opportunities, even running back-to-back tennis practices to accommodate all of the 60-plus players on the school’s teams.

Ultimately, the goal is to instill “future orientation” in students, which my research suggests is the most important non-cognitive factor in student success. This means simply having a future goal, aim or aspiration. My data indicate that students develop other non-cognitive skills after their future goals or aims come into focus. Teachers and staff members at Harding have developed many creative ways of getting students to believe in themselves and think about their futures.

How Teachers Can Build Positive Classroom and School Culture

Build on your students’ strengths. Find ways to learn about your students and their talents and goals. In many ways, this is the hardest work that teachers do, but it’s crucial to getting your students to achieve. By finding the areas in which an individual student can excel, you’ll encourage his or her success in all areas.

Develop relationships. Strong student/teacher relationships don’t start or end in the classroom. Engage with your students in the hallways and outside class. An act as simple as asking about their participation the school play or how an older sibling is doing can go a long way towards building a true rapport with your students.

Let them know you believe in them. My research data suggest that building students’ confidence is an important factor in their future academic success. As a teacher, it’s your job to help build that confidence by highlighting all kinds of accomplishments and encouraging your students to see mistakes not as failures, but opportunities to learn.

Encourage a sense of belonging. One of the things about Harding that stands out to me is how many avenues exist for students to get involved. This drives a sense of belonging to the school, including a large variety of clubs, teams, after-school programs and student-led organizations.

Create strength in diversity. Good teachers find ways to capitalize on the diversity in their classrooms. They understand how a diverse set of ethnicities, backgrounds and experiences can be used to create a more stimulating classroom environment. It’s also critically important for this generation of students to learn how to thrive in a global, cross-cultural environment. For more, read my earlier post on cultural identity in schools.

Related Articles

“An Inside Look at What Harding High School is Doing Right” by Peter Demerath


Peter Demerath

About the Author

Peter Demerath, Ph.D.

  • Associate Professor
  • Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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