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Transforming School Culture: Shining the Light on a Hidden Gem

Nicolet Middle School is located in Banning, California, a very small town located about halfway between my current town and Palm Springs in beautiful southern California.

Perspectives

It was a typical Thursday morning and I had just started my day in my role as summer school Principal for Colton Joint Unified School District in Colton, California. After welcoming students with music blasting from my rolling speaker, I settled down to check my emails when my phone rang. The Superintendent of Banning Unified School District was calling to offer me the position of Principal at Nicolet Middle School. Nicolet Middle School is located in Banning, California, a very small town located about halfway between my current town and Palm Springs in beautiful southern California. Emotional to say the least, I couldn’t believe it was happening. My dream job.

I loved my three years working as an elementary school Assistant Principal, but I missed working with students at the middle school level. Out of my 15 years working in education, the years I found the most rewarding were the four years I spent teaching middle school. In those four years, I discovered that I had an ability to really relate and connect to students at this age because of my own experiences at that age. I remember really struggling in middle school. I struggled with self acceptance and fitting in. I was bullied to the point that I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I cried every day, and eventually had to change schools. Middle school age is such a crucial age! It’s the age where students can make decisions that will take them down a path of success or self-destruction, and as adults in their life we have so much power to help influence their choices. They just want to be seen and heard and when we as adults give them those opportunities, they feel valued, loved, and accepted. They realize that they matter, and their presence in the world matters. At the middle school level, we can save lives! So I chose to take a chance, follow my dreams, and apply at a school outside of the district that helped raise me since I was six years old and where I had given my last 15 years as an educator. I got the call on Thursday, met the board that evening, and got my keys to Nicolet Middle School the following week. I was now the principal of the Nicolet Palominos: a new, ambitious, and naive “newbie” who was ready to take on the world.

The before and after pictures of the front of our school.

After the initial excitement and euphoria wore off, it didn’t take long to get hit with a big fat reality check. When I excitedly introduced myself as the new Principal at Nicolet Middle School, people responded with “Yikes, good luck” and a tone that spoke more than their words. “It can’t be that bad,” I thought to myself. “I come from tough schools. What should I be preparing myself for?” I quickly started learning about the war stories and traumatic events that unfolded the year prior. I knew I was in for a tough road ahead. But with a passionate and relentless heart, I convinced myself I was ready.

Nicolet Middle School was a school that had developed a reputation for being the epicenter of student fights, the arrest of a staff member,  a teacher strike, and perhaps most tragically, the death of a student. Nicolet Middle School had also been struggling academically for years. The latest dashboard data showed declines in almost every single area. Suspension rates had jumped substantially every year since 2017 and doubled over the past two years. Just looking at the data, without knowing the story, will mislead you to believe that this school is failing, but that wasn’t the case at all. I started to meet the staff and what I saw immediately was a group of educators who were loyal to their community and dedicated to the students they served. As I started to learn more about the school, I learned about the incredible programs and opportunities that Nicolet offered students. Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), dual immersion, Cadet Corps, orchestra, theatre arts, sports teams, and so much more. Why didn’t these amazing things come up when I Googled Nicolet Middle? I concluded that the story of Nicolet Middle School was being told by the media and disgruntled community members. Something had to change. Nicolet Middle School was a hidden gem, and I knew my purpose there was to help shine the light on the incredible things that were happening there and the beautiful community of staff, students and parents that existed in Banning, California.

The 2018-2019 school year started off as a principal’s worst nightmare. Teachers were going on strike. The principal at the time had to start the school year by gathering students in large areas and scrambling to find supervision just to get through the day. After three long exhausting days, the strike ended but not without parents, teachers, and students losing their faith in their school. They were a community divided.

This is not how anyone wants to start off a new school year. But nonetheless, the Nicolet Middle School (NMS) Palomino team got back up and attempted to move forward. Not even a month later, they were hit with their second blow. The Dean of Students was arrested in an undercover operation where he allegedly arranged to meet a minor for sexual acts through conversations happening over social media. This was traumatizing for the entire community. Once again, Nicolet Middle School made headlines and not for any of the reasons any school would want to make headlines.  But still, the Palomino staff continued to try to pick their heads up, move forward, and do what they have to do to show up for their kids everyday.

These events alone would be enough for most people to run for the hills. In October 2018, Nicolet went through yet another horrific event, the sudden and tragic loss of a student. As an educator, I don’t think you can experience anything worse than losing a student. On the night of Halloween, a very loved and popular 7th grade boy was struck by a car as he was crossing the street on his skateboard. In front of his peers, he was rushed to the hospital where he passed away four days later. The news of his passing came during lunch. In a world of social media, it did not take long for the news to spread to every single person on campus. Before the staff even had time to prepare for this crisis, students and staff were falling apart. Students everywhere were sobbing, hyperventilating, and passing out from shock. Ambulance had to be called to tend to students who were collapsing from the heartache of the loss of one of their best friends. At that point, the staff and students at Nicolet felt completely defeated. The entire community went into survival mode for the remainder of the school year. The summer before the 2019-2020 school year was a chance for everyone to recharge, refuel, and embrace a new school year with a fresh start and a new Principal.

This campus was known for fights. To encourage a fight free school, kids earned Kona Ice for being 20 days fight free.

As I learned about the 2018-2019 school year at Nicolet I could have viewed this school as a challenge, but I did not. What I saw was an opportunity. An opportunity to turn a school around. An opportunity to help rebuild this community. I knew we had to start with building a strong foundation that was based on relationships. My game plan was simple… love. I wanted to come in and create a place where the staff loves coming to work and where the kids love coming to school. Where we learn to love our community and each other. And first and foremost, where we love our kids.

Before I even welcomed staff and students back, I spent a lot of time walking around the campus looking for ways to improve the look. The aesthetics of a school impacts school culture. If a school looks dirty and rundown and the walls look bare and institutional, then that’s the feeling you will get walking through campus and that was not the feel I wanted for our community. I worked with our amazing director of maintenance and operations and their department. They were so supportive to help get us what we needed. We started with small things like replacing drinking fountains, planting flowers in rundown flower beds, trimmed shrubs around campus and cleaned out corners where trash and leaves gathered. They repainted the front of the school and we added a beautiful window decal to show our school pride and spirit. Throughout the first several months,the entire community saw the love and care that was being put into THEIR school and that in itself created a culture shift.

Even though the building and facilities needed love, the ones who needed it most were the people in our buildings. Hamish Brewer talks about a famous saying from New Zealand in his book Relentless. The saying is “What is the most important thing in the world? It is he tangata, he tangata, he tangata!” (It is the people, the people, the people!). The most important part of our job is the people in our buildings, so I knew I had to find ways to lift up, acknowledge, and appreciate our people. Students and staff needed to be praised and acknowledged for the incredible things they were doing. Immediately I started to think of ways to show public appreciation for one another. Every week I send out a staff newsletter that includes that week’s calendar, announcements, a principal’s message or reflection, pictures of the previous week’s highlights, a professional development (PD) corner with links to resources, a recommended PD book, and staff shout outs. In the newsletter called The Palomino Tribune, there is a link to a Google form. Teachers are able to submit a Google form to give a shoutout to a colleague for doing something amazing. Those shoutouts then get added into the Palomino Tribune each week for all to see.

English teacher Lilliana Gonzalez presenting English Teacher Michele Ouimette with a Skor bar while telling her how she ‘skor’ed having her as a colleague.

At the beginning of every staff meeting, we start off by showing some love and appreciation to each other there as well. At the front of the room there is a table with about 5-7 candy bars. Staff members are invited to come in and take one if they have someone they would like to publicly acknowledge. Once we get started, the ones who took a candy bar will stand up and present their colleague with a treat using the name of the treat and a play with words. For example, last staff meeting we used Skor bars, and when presenting their colleague with the treat, they said, “I ‘skor’ed having a colleague like you because…”.  The smiles of love and appreciation lift spirits and start our staff meeting off in the best way. Next staff meeting, we get to start a new tradition by ending the meeting with the “passing of the belt.” This new tradition came to us in early January when we invited speaker Rick Ramirez to come give a keynote address, Reach Them Before You Teach Them. Rick’s keynote message shares the importance of building relationships and being a champion for kids. He gifted us with a Palomino championship belt, and I was given the honor of presenting the belt to our first ever champion for students to 30 year veteran teacher Mrs. Bea Smith for her commitment to our students, staff, and community. Now at every staff meeting we conclude with the passing of the belt. Mrs. Smith will be selecting our February champion for students. We are so excited for this new tradition and so grateful for the impact that Rick Ramirez left on our campus.

It’s so important to find small ways to appreciate the staff all year long! From setting up a “Blueberry” snack bar that goes along with a story called, The Blueberry Story: A teacher gives a business man a lesson to a cookie buffet for being such “tough cookies,” finding fun, cute ways to show staff appreciation is so important. In November we treated them to “Thankful Thursday” treats in the staff lounge. In December we did a 12 days before winter break with a different daily surprise each day before we went off break that included things like delivering donuts with holiday music blaring to each staff member to a handwritten holiday card with a personal note of appreciation from admin. January we toasted with apple cider to a new year and February has been Fabulous Fridays with treats in the staff lounge. March will be planning surprises on Madness Mondays. It’s also important to incorporate fun! When you create a workplace that embraces and creates opportunities to have fun, that fun filters out onto our campus and into our classrooms. We have played games such as “Find your celebrity couple match” and “Find your Turkey Scratcher.”  For the “Find your celebrity match” game I simply printed up several famous couples, cut them out separately and placed one cut out person in each mailbox. I sent out instructions to all staff members in an email to find their match. When they found their match they had to run to the principal’s office to claim a prize where I had an office full of snacks, classroom supplies, and books for them to choose from. The “Turkey Scratcher Game” was just as fun. I purchased some scratch-off stickers and put them on turkeys that I had printed out with a prize printed on them. I put the stickers over the prize and taped turkeys all over our front offices for the staff to find, scratch and come to my office to claim their prize. These games not only created a workplace that was fun, but also built camaraderie amongst a staff of almost 90 which is difficult to do when we are so focused on the daily tasks of our job. It’s amazing how making a staff feel loved and appreciated for their hard work and dedication can not only impact, but completely shift a school’s culture.  Taking the time to do this is worth the effort, work, and time!

Above all else, the ones who were most impacted by such a tragic year were our students. When I started, I took some time to look at a survey given to our Palominos at the end of the school year. The message was clear: school was not fun. They saw their school as a place where students misbehaved and where they were not proud to be from. They felt like no one acknowledged them when they did well. Instead, they felt that they were being punished for the poor behavior of just a few.

It is so easy as a school administrator to spend all your time and energy just putting out fires all day, responding to behaviors again and again and never having the time to do anything else. It’s easy to get caught up with emails and paperwork in your office. But making an impact on a school where you are hoping to create change isn’t going to happen from behind a desk. So I refused to be that principal. When it comes to carpet vs blacktop principal, I can say that I like to refer to myself as a blacktop principal. I was never in my office! I was outside and in classrooms. I took a rolling speaker with me and blasted music through the hallways and quads. I greeted every single student and staff that passed me with a big smile and a big hello to make sure that they felt that I was so happy they were here. I learned names. I learned about their likes, dislikes, and families. I didn’t just supervise at lunch. I sat down with them at their table, ate lunch with them, talked to them and learned about them. I listened to them. Inspired by a must-read book for anyone in education, Relentless, one of the things that has made the biggest impact on our school culture was ending my morning announcements with this: “If no one has told you today that they love you, Mrs. Rodriguez is telling you today that I love you.” And then showing them with every interaction that I mean it.

The Palomino store started with a table and a few snacks and supplies and now with the help of community and parent donations it grew to a full classroom full of cool things for our students to purchase with their Palomino Bucks.

Students want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged just like adults do. So we found ways to acknowledge them, too. As I would walk around campus I saw so many students who were following rules, showing kindness, being respectful, and making me proud. I needed something to give them to tell them thank you. So Palomino Bucks were created. Palomino Bucks instantly became a game changer. Before I even had a chance to introduce them, I took a stack out to see how students would react. I literally had a group of students asking me what I was holding and asking how they could earn them. I told them they could earn them for things as simple as picking up a piece of trash and throwing it away. They immediately went to pick up a piece of trash and came back for a Palomino Buck. They didn’t even know what they could get for them yet! That Friday, the Palomino store had its grand opening. It started with a small table with a few snacks and some school supplies. Today, thanks to some of our amazing and incredible staff members, parents and community members, it has grown into a full market now housed inside a classroom with tables full of school supplies, treats, toys, clothes, and gifts for every upcoming holiday. Every Friday, the line is out the door! We had to pull Associated Student Body (ASB), our school leadership students to help work and manage the volume of customers. We did everything we could to make school fun again. We tried to bring so many different ways to celebrate students and their successes. Positive office referrals gave teachers the opportunity to take time to recognize students for their good behavior. Students who are written a positive office referral get called to the principal’s office to be commended on their behavior. They also receive twenty Palomino Bucks, a “Student Champion” cardstock cover for their binder (another gift from Rick Ramirez), and then we call home together to share with their parents and/or guardian the wonderful news. I have had parents break down in tears on the phone to hear a good-news call from their child’s principal. I take their picture and I add it to my #PalominoPride board in my office. So far this school year, I have been able to make over 100 positive phone calls home.

Students are being rewarded more often for their good behavior. The entire school was awarded Kona Ice for being able to go 20 days with no fights. The first two months we had 28 fights. We were averaging fights almost every other day. By creating a culture where students were recognized for their positive behavior as well as giving them some organized sports at lunch, giving them the tools and strategies to get out of a confrontation, and providing them with the appropriate support after they do engage in a fight, we were able to significantly reduce the amount of fights. For the next two months, we only had seven! Students with no referrals are entered into a drawing each month to win a pair of Airpods. Field Trips were allowed again. Students have been able to take trips to The Museum of Tolerance, The San Diego Wild Animal Park, several different colleges and local universities, UCLA football games, weekend long leadership retreats, Girl’s and Boy’s Empowerment Retreats, and teachers are continuing to plan for more.  Reward assemblies and activities are planned each quarter for students who are meeting the Triple A Criteria (Academics, Attitude, and Attendance). We are working hard to create a culture where kids feel a sense of belonging, where they feel happy and safe, loved, valued, and appreciated. In the words of Beth Houf and Shelley Burgess in the book Lead Like a Pirate, we want to create a school culture where kids are breaking doors to get in rather than out. That is my goal at Nicolet Middle School.

These students earned a positive office referral and we call home together to share the good news. So far this school year I have been able to make over 100 positive phone calls home.

We now had to change the image that was being portrayed about our school. We wanted everyone who was a part of our community to be proud! On my first official day as NMS principal I created a social media account on three different platforms. Facebook for the parents, Instagram for the students, and Twitter for fellow educators. The story of Nicolet Middle School was not being told by the people who were living it. Immediately I went out and started to look for things to push out to the community. What story did I want to tell about Nicolet Middle School? It didn’t take long to find something to be proud of. During the summer months our custodial staff was working diligently during the hot summer days to deep clean our campus. I found Tom and Larry waxing the floors of the 100 building and the cafeteria. The other custodians were shampooing carpets in all 40+ classrooms. I snapped a picture and put it out there with this caption, “Our custodial staff at NMS has been working so hard during these hot summer months…getting the campus looking beautiful for our students’ and teachers’ return! Thank you for all your hard work! #palominopride”. One of them looked at me in shock. He told me that no one had ever done anything like that before. That post reached almost 300 people, had almost 50 likes, and had several community members thanking them for their hard work.

After that, the game was on. I made it a point to post at least one thing each day. Even during the summer months I was able to find at least one thing to brag about daily. Immediately, people started feeling a shift. Posts of students participating in a summer camp, staff working hard at a successful registration day, parent meeting nights, teachers at professional development, and students engaged in learning or participating in extracurricular flooded our feed. Our story was getting told by us! And instantly Nicolet was being seen in a new light. People were talking, and it wasn’t negative! We started a hashtag that everyone has been encouraged to use. Search “#palominopride” and you will see a feed full of all the incredible things happening at Nicolet Middle School. The negativity quickly began to fade. In the words of George Couros, “Make the positivity so loud that the negativity is hard to hear.”  And that’s exactly what we did.

Although we have a lot of work ahead of us, I am excited and hopeful for the future of our school.  When we take time to celebrate the people in our building and to show that we truly love and believe in them beyond grades and test scores, we are establishing a place where people can flourish and be successful. We have started to rebuild from the foundation up. A foundation built on love: love for our students, for our staff, and for our community. Mrs. Smith said it best. After being called down to accept the championship belt she received a standing ovation from everyone in attendance. And afterward she said this in an email to the staff, “As I ambled down the aisle I saw and felt a renewed united staff working together to work earnestly to transform NMS into a BEACON IN THE COMMUNITY. Tears flowed for the excitement of walking to receive the award.  However, many more flowed for the sight and new feeling within my heart, for I sensed we are at a turning point to walk united on the path leading to the transformation of NMS.”


Brewer, Hamish (2019). Relentless Changing Lives By Disrupting the Norm. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., p. 99.

Vollmer, J. (2018). The Blueberry Story: The teacher gives the businessman a lesson. Retrieved from

https://newsroom.unl.edu/announce/csmce/755/3329

Ramirez, R. (2019). Rick Ramirez. Retrieved from

https://www.rickramirezspeaks.com/

Houf, Beth and Burgess, Shelly (2017). Lead Like a Pirate. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.

I am a first year principal at a new school, district, and county. My teaching experience has consisted of teaching a self contained class from kindergarten through 3rd grade and being an elementary and middle school RSP teacher in the district that I had the privilege of attending since 1st grade through high school graduation. My mom was an educator and gave 30 years to the same district, including 20 years as a site and district administrator. I am a mother of four very active and involved children as well as a coach's wife so we lead a very busy life. I am so grateful for this life and all the opportunities it has brought me!

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