Fostering Excellence: The Crucial Role of School Culture and Climate in Charter Renewal

By Dominic Frisina

Behind every charter school is an authorizer, and its responsibilities are essential to producing great charter schools nationwide. However, meeting authorizer requirements can be difficult. Charter schools are held to rigorous standards for earning their initial charter authorization and then earning their renewal and/or expansion at pre-selected periods of time.

As a former charter school leader, I am well acquainted with the authorization process – and the challenges encountered during renewal and expansion. In 2017, I led the opening of the Citizenship and Science Academy of Syracuse. Our success was hard-fought. For example, we went from 1,672 referable incidents in year one to 116 in year two. Teamwork, resilience, and a culture grounded in character and relationships propelled us. 

Yet, opening in 2017 meant we were up for renewal in 2022. And, coming out of the Covid years of 2020 and 2021, we had concerns about our charter renewal process. 

During the charter renewal evaluation, authorizers conduct comprehensive interviews with all stakeholder groups, including parents, students, staff, and leaders. They probe with a series of questions to gauge the school’s performance, covering areas like teaching, learning, student outcomes, climate and culture, finance, organizational robustness, and recruitment. Essentially, this renewal acts as an exhaustive fact-checking endeavor, assessing the school community’s feedback and performance over the charter’s term, which, for us, spanned the previous five years.

When the time for our renewal finally arrived, we felt prepared but uncertain. However, it turns out we shouldn’t have been worried. And, that’s because of our school culture and climate.

In our renewal, two topics dominated the conversation – not because of weakness, but instead because of strength. Those topics were Benchmark 3 and Benchmark 6, which I describe below.

  • Benchmark 3: Culture, Climate, and Student and Family Engagement: The school has systems in place to support students’ social and emotional health and to provide for a positive, safe, and respectful learning environment that prepares all students for college and career. Families, community members and school staff work together to share in the responsibility for student academic progress and social-emotional growth and well-being. Families and students are satisfied with the school’s academics and the overall leadership and management of the school.
  • Benchmark 8: Mission and Key Design Elements: The school is faithful to its mission and has implemented the key design elements included in its charter.

We met Benchmark 3 at an uncharacteristically high level. Low suspension, high family satisfaction, sound teacher retention, and clear systems in place. We were upstream on problems, and working toward preventing them through the strength of our culture. Families sent us their kids because they would be safe. And, parents knew that if there was a problem, we would handle it together with a clear process. 

This positive culture led to a successful five-year renewal of my building. This renewal also authorized expansion across two campuses, encompassing grades K-12. We then replicated this success with the opening of the Citizenship and Science Academy of Rochester in the fall of 2023.

So how’d we get there? How did we successfully renew and expand our charter?

The secret to our success was The Positivity Project (P2). Our partnership with P2 was transformative. It fostered an uplifting school culture and bolstered community engagement. By dedicating just 15 minutes daily to character-building, we drastically reduced incidents and boosted staff morale and retention rates. Our surveys reflected our success: students felt safe, teachers believed in the learning environment, and parents felt assured of their children’s well-being.

In our charter’s second year, we achieved a significant reduction in incidents, dropping from 1,672 in year one to only 116 in year two. This dramatic improvement allowed us to redirect our attention to community service initiatives, boosting staff morale and ultimately increasing both student and staff retention rates to over 85%. 

Feedback from our community was overwhelmingly positive. In focus group discussions, every student indicated they felt safe at school. According to the 2021 CSO Teacher Survey, 100% of participating teachers felt the school environment was safe. The sentiment was echoed by parents, with 94% of those surveyed in the 2021 CSO Parents/Guardians Survey agreeing that the school offered a secure environment. Additionally, that same teacher survey revealed unanimous agreement that the classrooms were conducive to learning and largely disruption-free, a sentiment shared by 91% of parents in their respective survey.

Our nurturing environment paved the way for numerous service-learning opportunities. We organized various drives supporting local organizations and charities, collaborated with the local children’s hospital, and our students received accolades for their altruism.

Both parents and teachers in focus groups resonated with a sense of deep satisfaction. They felt the school had fostered an environment where everyone, parents included, felt part of a united “family.” This was substantiated by the 2021 CSO Teacher Survey, where 95% of the teachers acknowledged the school’s efforts in providing ample opportunities for parental involvement. The strength of these relationships and the positive mindset they engendered were paramount. It was immensely gratifying to witness the profound, positive impact of our investment in students, a sentiment consistently reflected in stakeholder feedback and state-wide surveys.

A recurring theme I’ve noticed during charter renewals, irrespective of the state, is the increasing emphasis on students’ social-emotional development, overall school culture, and staff retention. While we may have been ahead of the curve, my message to others is to always prioritize relationships and culture. Though our commitment to academics remains unwavering, we firmly believe that relationships, culture, and support are the bedrock of educational success. With the support of partners like P2, we’ve thrived, expanding and continually growing true to our mission. Our mission defined our purpose, and The Positivity Project provided the roadmap. I urge educational leaders to reflect:  How do you bring your mission to life and ensure your school climate, culture, and safety are in the best place possible?

Dominic Frisina
Growth Operations Manager, The Positivity Project

Dominic Frisina is the Growth Operations Manager of The Positivity Project. Dominic taught in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Syracuse at the elementary and middle levels while coaching basketball, soccer -- and receiving teacher of the year honors. As a Principal of the Citizenship and Science Academy of Syracuse, Dominic led the opening and expansion of two school buildings in Syracuse, NY which were successfully replicated in Rochester, NY. As a P2 Partner, Dominic built the foundation of his school through relationships and engagement with families, receiving honors for community service. His research interests include the impact of organizational culture, and the power of mentorship.