Getting it Right From the Start: Our Six-Week Culture Plan

posted on September 21, 2018

By Juliana Bryansmith, Principal, Coney Island Prep Elementary School

Heading into my fifth year as Principal of Coney Island Prep Elementary School, I know just how important these first few weeks of school are.

I have such a swell of emotions in seeing families drop off their children, often with siblings across many of our schools, knowing they entrust in us their most precious gifts. Not only do we have children here who are experiencing school for the first time, we have scholars from a wide range of backgrounds, with a huge array of needs to be met.

I want to share a bit about how we start the school year right, and our thinking behind these strategies.

Across all three schools at Coney Island Prep, we kick off the year with a six-week culture push. This lays the groundwork for a school year that is academically focused, joyful, and rigorous, so that our scholars are ultimately prepared to succeed in the college or career of their choice. As an elementary school principal, that might sound far-fetched or distant, but we all know just how quickly kids grow up, and just how high the stakes are.

I spend most of my day in classrooms, just like our scholars. In these first few weeks, I am in more than a dozen classes each day.

What am I focused on?

I’m looking for three things: an academically focused classroom, joyful instruction, and rigor. When looking for an academic focus, I want to see teachers using the tools in their “toolbox,” like checks for understanding, choral responses, and building habits of discussion — not just in service of rules, but in service of learning. When teachers are using questioning strategies (like no opt out, or cold calls), they are communicating to scholars that they are responsible for their own learning.

Teaching is both a science and an art, and we call on both to build joy into our classrooms. It’s the secret sauce to not just ensure scholars are learning, but that they’re loving coming to school every day. In classes that are full of joy, scholars are naturally sitting up and watching the teacher and their peers, they’re participating in whole-class cheers, and there is a certain buzz in the classroom that is hard to describe. I never want to leave when classes are joyful!

Finally, in these first six weeks of school, I want us to set the bar high for our students’ thinking with rigorous learning objectives. While there is a place for skills like recall and memorization, higher-order thinking skills like evaluating, creating, and synthesizing are a must; and those skills can be taught right from the get-go. We must be especially vigilant about our own biases that may be unintentionally creating different expectations for students, when in fact all are capable of doing critical thinking. Families can often help reinforce these and other skills at home – one simple resource to start is at

I hope families and scholars know that if we are successful in these first six weeks, we are much more likely to achieve our goal of preparing every scholar for success in college and careers. Jumping into this school year with such relentless focus, I believe we’re doing just that.