By now, many schools have core values emblazoned on their walls. The challenge, as most members of any school community know, isn’t figuring out what those values are, or where to post them; it is ensuring that they really are shared values—understood, embraced, and lived out by all in a community.
This week, students at St. Athanasius School in the Bronx gave us a glimpse of what years of intentional effort to cultivate shared values can produce. When their school’s orientation for new families moved quickly from an in-person event—where returning middle schoolers were scheduled to offer tours—to a comprehensive collection of videos that parents and students could access more flexibly, St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar reached out to her trusted tour guides with a request: video themselves talking about key elements of the school’s culture. She gave them no other guidance than divvying up topics among them.
Their responses are simple and relatable—and suggest the values are so prevalent at the school that even a few months off for the summer haven’t caused students to forget them.
Indeed, the videos reveal how students have made the school’s values their own, and aren’t just parroting them. Briana’s encouragement to put in 100% effort, 100% of the time, for instance, includes this personal nuance: “It doesn’t necessarily mean we have to be perfect, and that’s not what the teachers expect, but we are expected to be hard workers. That’s what our job is.”
When asked why she helped with the video project, Briana reflected, “I remember how nervous I was my first day of school. I wanted to help new students feel welcomed and safe. Helping others brings me joy, and if I could, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
As her principal says, “How Briana articulates academics is exactly as I would!” That reflects both the frequency with which Jessica and all the educators at St. Athanasius refer to these key elements of the school culture and the intentionality with which they are chosen. They are “sticky,” Jessica says. “They stick to everything—not just academics. For example, at one point there was a disagreement that spread among the middle schoolers. We might have let it go, but we thought ‘no, we have to figure this out. We give 100% to our relationships too.’”
It is not enough, of course, that students remember core values and root beliefs; they must drive actions and priorities in order for schools to have integrity, as Partnership Superintendent Christian Dallavis has often explained. “When all the practices, policies, procedures and communications in a school building are in alignment with a focused set of root beliefs, we can say our school community has integrity–and teachers and students experience that integrity as strong school culture.”
St. Athanasius student Miley has a strong handle on integrity too. She explains simply to new students: “having integrity means someone can put their trust in you.”
She’s internalized humility as well: “humility is encouraging each other, working as a team, and realizing there is always more to learn from each other”—not always actions that adults associate with preteens, but ones Miley suggests in a matter-of-fact way as completely reasonable for her to expect of herself and her classmates.
Her classmate Faith likewise can give us all hope. When it comes to service, for example, she is clear and simple: “We can all help each other.”
And Ben, who speaks to the schools’ priorities of kindness, acceptance, and inclusion, sums up such abstractions with words that are likely a real relief to students starting a new school: “I assure you, you are going to make friends. Just be yourself, and have a good time.”
In less than two weeks, St. Athanasius School—founded in 1913—will welcome the largest number of students it has had in the building in sixty years. The culture in evidence in these videos is part of the reason.
As Jessica explains, “When we became a Partnership School in 2013, our school was revitalized. Our students were given access to a knowledge-based and rigorous curriculum, and our teachers were given meaningful professional development to help them teach it effectively. Students were able to learn in bright, clean, and newly furnished classrooms, the school had enough staff and leadership to run it effectively, and the parent community was supported every step of the way.”
But she adds: “While the culture at St. Athanasius was already strong, we were given the tools to help us better articulate who we are, what we believe, and what we do because of our beliefs.”
Those values and beliefs helped St. Athanasius and its families weather the decades-long ravages of redlining and the fires that slashed the population of the South Bronx by over 300,000 residents. In the last year, amid the devastation of the pandemic that hit the Bronx particularly hard, the school’s intentional reliance on those values and beliefs sustained the community as well.
They are keys as well to its tomorrows. Miley—the student who reflected on integrity and humility—shares her hopes for this school year: “Even though it’s not a regular year for us, I hope I can make great memories, learn more, and be safe. I hope my class can work together. I hope the school can strive to be the best and make sure new families are safe and welcomed into our community.”
With clear values and strong leadership, we have faith that Miley’s vision will once again come vibrantly to life at St. Athanasius—and at every school animated by firmly held, shared values and beliefs, lived out daily.