Skip to content

School Culture and Community Soil

I once visited two Catholic schools in Tucson, Arizona, to meet the principals and learn more about the challenges they were facing. After decades of serving Tucson’s Latino south side, both St. John the Evangelist and Santa Cruz Catholic Schools were on the verge of closure because of sustained drops in enrollment.

After I met with Sr. Leonette at Santa Cruz, I drove two miles down 6th Avenue and sat down with Roseanne at St. John. She asked me straight away: “What should I do about enrollment? How can we recruit more students?” Sr. Leonette had just told me about a few enrollment strategies that she had found promising, and I asked Roseanne if she had tried any of them. She looked thoughtful for a moment and then replied, “No, that won’t work over here.”

On the surface, Roseanne’s response sounds like an excuse—and a bad one! After all, “over here” and “over there” are the same place! We weren’t talking about something happening in Wichita—you could practically see the Santa Cruz church tower from St. John!

What Roseanne understood, of course, is that the community, culture, and history that has emerged over the course of 50 years at the intersection of 12th Avenue and Ajo Way is not the same as the neighborhood just two miles north at 29th and 6th, where Santa Cruz has stood for a century. These schools were neighborhood schools, and their identities and cultures had been shaped over decades by the experience of the people in the neighborhood. While “the south side of Tucson” felt, to this outsider from northern Indiana, like an ostensibly monolithic community, it was comprised of diverse micro-communities.

Keiran Roche, a Santa Cruz teacher who later succeeded Roseanne as principal at St. John the Evangelist, described some of the differences. Over 100 years, the Santa Cruz community had become a small, tightly-knit community that prized its small class sizes. There were dozens of legacy students, whose parents and even grandparents had gone there. Many school families were 5th- or 6th- generation Americans of Mexican descent—who, as Richard Rodriguez writes, can say “We were here when here was there.” The parish has been led by a rotation of discalced Carmelite friars for a century, and Sr. Leonette’s Franciscan sisters of Charity, from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, had staffed the school since 2002.

St. John was home to many children of newly-arrived immigrant families, more native Spanish speakers, more parishioners, and only a handful of legacy students. As school enrollment more than tripled, parents never mentioned small class size. Monsignor Raul Trevizo, a native Spanish-speaker, has been pastor of St. John since 1993 and is a pillar of the community. Roseanne, a native Tucsonan, had been the second grade teacher and had four boys of her own at the school.

The School Culture Tree

School culture is central to successful schools. In 2009, I visited SHINE Prep in Houston, the first KIPP primary school, where the founding principal, Aaron Brenner, introduced me to the idea of using a tree as a metaphor for understanding how leaders create strong school culture. Since then, I have been developing, teaching, and implementing in Catholic schools a conceptual framework for school culture, and I often use the image of a “school culture tree” to think about the elements of school culture and how they fit together.

The tree framework proposes that school culture is rooted in a set of beliefs—firmly-held convictions about the meaning of life, how we learn, and our relationships with God, the world, and others. The many roots of a tree unify and emerge from the ground as a single trunk, which is the shared purpose of a school. The trunk branches up and out to give life to the tree and support its weight. The branches are the core values of a school community—the actions that make the beliefs known and advance the school’s purpose. In the Partnership Schools, our core values require that we do the right thing (integrity), put others first (humility), persist in our efforts (hard work), and contribute to the community (service).

Finally, the branches hold the many leaves of a tree, which are the daily culture carriers of a school—the operating norms, teaching practices, physical spaces, artifacts, and stories in a school that can tell us what “kind” of school it is and how robust the culture is, just like leaves on a tree tell us what it is and how well it is doing.

For years, I taught this metaphor as a model for school culture in the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame. I believe that school leaders can build strong cultures by ensuring that the beliefs in their roots flow through the trunk, out into the branches, and are ultimately expressed in each leaf of the school day. Roseanne’s comment in 2009—“that won’t work over here”—suggests another element to the model that I have come to consider essential: the soil.

Community Soil

Maple and oak trees might thrive in the northern woods of Ohio, but saguaros blossom in the Arizona desert. What works in one community may not be right for another. One cannot transplant a school culture from the south side of Tucson—even a successful one—to schools on the east side of Cleveland. Often, one cannot even transplant a school culture a couple of miles down the road.

Roseanne and her successors at St. John implemented this tree approach to school culture for eight years as a Notre Dame ACE Academy. Driven by root beliefs like “The small things matter,” “We are united in Christ,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Every minute matters,” the St. John team grew the school from 133 students to 435 and established a thriving culture of high expectations. And they did so planted in a particular place and shaped by a unique history. The people who have lived in the neighborhood over the decades since the school was planted have influenced the beliefs, values, and purpose of today’s school. The norms of the school community became, over time, deeply intertwined with the local culture. Unique ways of interacting and knowing emerged. To cultivate a thriving school culture in this micro-community on the south side of Tucson, Roseanne, Keiran, and their teachers needed to understand the neighborhood, know its residents, discover its businesses, learn its history, appreciate its language, connect with its faith, and appreciate its relationship to the larger south-side and Tucson communities.

How did they do this? They spent time with members of the community in the parish. They attended quinceañeras and first communions and weddings whenever they were invited. They visited students’ homes and the places their parents worked. They ate in the local restaurants and befriended small business owners. They planted a community garden and gave away hundreds of pounds of produce. They formed the San Juanitos mariachi band, and a ballet folklórico program. They added more seating for large families in the office, simplified scholarship processes, and reduced barriers to enrollment. They encouraged the use of Spanish at school events, in all communications, and in the office. Keiran and his wife taught CCD to parish 8th graders. They recruited a team of madrinas to spread the word and recruit more families to the school.


Ballet folkórico at St. John the Evangelist Catholic School. Tucson, AZ.

If a tree fails to draw on the richness of its soil, it cannot thrive. Likewise, school leaders and teachers must ensure their roots draw on the people and resources of the local community. While the school’s beliefs, values, and purpose have been shaped by the local community over years, to ensure the school flourishes, current leaders and teachers must be thoughtful and intentional in drawing on the rich soil of their community when developing their beliefs, identifying their purpose, and determining the actions they value.

Christian Dallavis is Assistant Superintendent of Partnership Schools.