What it Takes to Build a School Vision

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“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea,” said French journalist and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery. At Green Dot, we long for an education landscape where every child can attend a school in their neighborhood, publicly-funded, that provides them an excellent education. This belief is a thread that connects every Green Dot employee from Venice to Boyle Heights to Memphis.

Ánimo Mae Jemison Charter Middle School (AMJ) Principal Nate Geller has spent the past year helping his community see the future they are building together. Throughout his first year as the school’s leader, he’s been working with staff, students, and families to reinvent school culture and build a new vision that may not inspire a longing for the sea, but hopefully one for college, leadership and life!

Why a School Vision Matters

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“When I first got to AMJ, no one could really articulate what the vision for our school was. They knew the Green Dot mission, but couldn’t describe a clear vision for how we were going to change the path for our students together,” recalled Geller. “When people feel like they’re driving toward a deeply meaningful endpoint, it changes their perspective: this isn’t just a job or a place to pass through; we’re on a mission to deliver on a promise to the community. A collectively crafted vision galvanizes our team to go the extra mile.”

To build a vision statement, Geller and the AMJ leadership team dedicated a full-staff professional development session at the beginning of the year to brainstorm around questions like:

  • How will students describe their educational experience?
  • If we ask Ánimo Mae Jemison alumni what were the top three words they would use to describe their experience - what would they be?
  • What is now a part of a student’s educational experience because Ánimo Mae Jemison exists? OR What is not a part of a student’s educational experience because Ánimo Mae Jemison exists?
  • What kind of behavior do we want adults to model for students?
  • What aspects of Mae Jemison’s journey and values do we want to instill in our students?
  • How do we want to encourage students to view and interact with the community of Watts?
  • In our school’s halls and classrooms, what kinds of things do you want students say to one another? What could adults say to students?

The team reviewed the themes and common language that came out of this dialogue, as well as key phrases within quotes from their school’s namesake and the first African American woman to go to space, Mae Jemison. They then drafted several versions of a vision statement that would inspire staff and students, and felt true to the school’s identity and purpose. “This vision process has been a very collaborative exercise where the thoughts and opinions of each stakeholder are valued,” said Kristin O’Donohue, sixth and seventh grade history teacher at AMJ.

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“I really loved the meeting where multiple vision statements were proposed and we had an opportunity to discuss and edit. This allowed us teachers to really own the wording and meaning behind the vision.

Geller wanted the statement to develop in a way that would promote whole-school ownership: “Every stakeholder group has had their eyes on our new vision statement throughout the fall and have given feedback--our whole staff, our parent advisory group, and our student government.”

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“This vision is a reminder as to what we strive to do every day with our students, and what we hope to achieve today, tomorrow, and years down the line at our school,” said eighth grade English Language Arts teacher Jenna Porretta. Porretta, who was very involved in the vision process, felt the importance of being involved: “Being a part of the vision creation process has given me the opportunity to be involved in something that is bigger than me. This vision will guide AMJ for years to come, and having a say in that sort of dialogue was an honor,” said Porretta. “The vision creation process was enjoyable, inspiring, and a truly collaborative experience.”

Her colleague O’Donohue similarly perceived participation in the process to be a special effort. “I have been apart of several schools prior to joining the Mae team and Green Dot this past fall,” said O’Donohue. “I have never taught somewhere that had student, teacher, and parent insight and feedback so seriously considered.”

The Outgrowth of a Vision

Geller and his team describe the work of developing this vision statement as gratifying, but still acknowledge that a statement alone won’t move the needle for school culture. “We still have a lot of work to do. A vision on paper doesn’t equate to impact on the student level,” said Geller. Ánimo Mae Jemison will be updating their Advisory curriculum, weaving the vision into new staff training, and making small updates to the physical look of the campus to reflect the vision. “We want to design systems and train our staff and stakeholders in such a way that our vision lives and breathes in daily interactions and the appearance of our school.”

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O’Donohue agreed: “We want this to be something that everyone can use and make personal to their own education. I really feel like this process is allowing AMJ to do that! I am so excited for what this will bring.”

They’ll also use the vision statement as a sounding board. “We’ll be asking ourselves questions like, ‘Are our decisions aligned to the vision?’ and ‘Does this decision allow us to move our vision forward?’” said Geller. “If we’ve done our job well with living our vision out on campus, people should be able to talk about our vision before they've read it, because they’ve seen it: in interactions with visitors, students, and staff. We’ll cultivate the feeling of being part of a constellation, that feels better when our stars are operating together.”

Before heading into winter break, the Jemison Jets had a new vision:

At Ánimo Mae Jemison, we are a constellation of learners working to forge an equitable future for our school and community. Together, we imagine, we explore, we persist, we challenge, and we support each other to set our expectations in the sky.

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