Positive philosophy

Positive philosophy

DeSocio, Janiece

Sometimes creating a positive school culture has less to do with reforms and programs than it does with the values and philosphies of the principal.

Creating a safe and inclusive L school that embraces diversity, engenders belonging, and inspires learning is chief among the many challenges facing a principal. It requires an exceptional school leader to keep these important goals in sight amid the day-to-day struggles of tight budgets, neverending facility maintenance, teacher turnover, and student absences.

We are nurse practitioners, working in the School Based Health Center at East High School in Rochester, NY, a comprehensive urban high school with an annual enrollment of 2,000 students. For two years, we worked closely with Edward Cavalier, the principal of East High, to implement a truancy intervention project for students at the school. We had an opportunity to talk with Cavalier about the project and to reflect with him about his preparations for retirement. We learned a great deal about the values that sustained him while he was principal and think that these words of wisdom may be helpful to other school principals.

Remember, They Aren’t Finished Yet

This was Cavalier’s advice in working with some of our most challenging students in the truancy intervention project. We must have hope for students’ futures, he said, even when we have reached the point of exasperation over their behavior and poor choices. Sometimes the choices students make have devastating effects on their futures. But if we lose hope and break our commitment to them, we lose the quality that could make the difference in whether they stay committed to school.

This comment also reflects an understanding of the developmental processes that occur for students during the high school years. Harter (1999) states that middle adolescence is a time of confusion and distress over the inconsistencies adolescents experience between their life goals, roles, behavior, and choices. As strange as it seems, it is possible for a 15-year-old student who skips math several days a week to state that he wants to become a marine biologist. We know, because that’s what a student told us.

How is this possible? Don’t students see the discrepancy between the choices they make today and what possibilities will be available to them tomorrow? Harter suggests that it is typical for a middle adolescent to be a bundle of controversy. Not until late adolescence is there a consolidation and more realistic appraisal of self in relationship to future goals. It is not uncommon for a 17-year-old student to experience the realization that he or she may not graduate as a personal crisis. If we have maintained engagement with that adolescent, we may still offer him or her opportunities for educational achievement.

Cavalier recalled one student who helped forge his belief in the unfinished potential of students. He pointed to a small wooden box that held a place of prominence on a table in his office, amidst a collection of cards and mementos. The creator of this box was a student who needed seven years to finish high school, accumulating a weighty file of suspension paperwork for instigating fights on school premises. At his graduation, the student gave the box and a heartfelt letter of gratitude to Cavalier, saying, “Thanks for not giving up on me.”

We Don’t Have Time to Do Just One Thing

Initially, this statement seemed at odds with the philosophy of open-ended hope and possibility. There is a sense of urgency in the message that school leaders must approach students’ problems from multiple perspectives. It was Cavalier’s philosophy to say yes to as many good ideas as possible because he believed, “If we don’t try as many good ideas as we can, we may never know what would have made the difference for a particular student.”

Many innovative programs at East High benefited from this philosophy. Among these were the first School Based Health Center in a Rochester City School District High School, a multiagency Student Support Center within the school, a middle school transition program, and a multifaceted truancy intervention project.

There Have to Be Enough Different Kinds of People in the School That Every Student Finds Someone He or She Can Relate To

Cavalier created a culturally rich school where all students could feel a sense of belonging by creating niches for adults of all ages, lifestyles, and ethnic origins to work in the school and have contact with students. He encouraged teachers and staff members to form relationships with students that might help them connect with the school.

We were surprised to learn how well this had worked. We discovered many former, and often belated, graduates of East High among the staff and teachers of the school. It wasn’t unusual to hear stories like the one we heard from the police officer stationed at East High. He confided that Cavalier “scared me into being good. If it weren’t for him, I don’t know. But look at me now!”

You Know You’ve Been Successful in Creating a Positive School Environment When You Can’t Get the Students to Leave

Cavalier pinpointed the year that the school culture at East High School turned the corner: It was the year he began to notice more and more students staying on the school grounds after school. Often the students would be bantering with teachers and staff members until they were finally escorted out the doors, and even then they would just hang around outside for a while. This change didn’t represent an increase in disruptive troublemakers using school grounds as a place to congregate, but rather a genuine reticence of students to leave after the school day.

It takes a long time to transform a school’s culture, but when it is attained it is likely to be sustained beyond the influence of any one person. Although Edward Cavalier retired in May 2002 after serving as East High’s principal for 30 years, we believe the culture at East High will continue to convey his values for many years to come.


Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. New York: Guilford Press.

Janiece DeSocio (desocio@vancouver.wsu.edu) is an assistant professor of nursing at Washington State University-Vancouver. Maureen VanCura (maureen_vancura @urmc.rochester.edu) is SBHC manager and nurse practitioner at East High School Based Health Center in Rochester, NY.

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals Sep 2003

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