A New Way to Start

When Steve Bahn became principal at Ideal Elementary School, a K–6 school with 245 students, he didn’t like how the school day began. “It felt chaotic and fragmented,” he recalls. Students entered the building from several directions, depending on whether they arrived by bus, by car, or on foot. There was no suitable indoor place for early arrivers to wait. Students dawdled in the hallways and often got rowdy before the morning bell rang.

“Beginnings are so important,” says Steve, “They can make or break the school day. I knew we had a lot of work to do in this arena.” He started by bringing the problem to a small group of teacher leaders responsible for supporting positive student behavior. He also offered a possible solution, a morning routine that had been successful at a previous school.

The group, concerned with the problem as well, was immediately excited about crafting a new way to start the day. They named two key goals: To create a more orderly and positive start to the day and to build a schoolwide sense of pride and community.

The routine would be simple: Begin every day with all students and staff together in the gym for a very short, five- or six-minute community-building assembly. The assembly would include a greeting, the pledge of allegiance, a lively activity (such as joke-telling on “Wacky Wednesdays”), and brief announcements. But the planning to make this successful took weeks of careful thought.

Thorough planning to ensure success

The first step was to work out the logistics and get the rest of the staff on board. The group knew the importance of being thorough here. “We tried to anticipate staff concerns and made sure we worked out all the details before we took it to them,” says team member Barb Hobe. High on the list of anticipated concerns was the potential chaos with 245 students in the gym at one time, the need for supervision for early arrivers, and the need to establish routines for entering, sitting in, and leaving the gym.

“We thought through every single step that students would need to take,” says another team member, Mona Johnson. “We mapped out how students would enter the building, how they would walk through the main entrance and into the gym, where they would sit in the gym, what they would do with their belongings, and how they would exit the gym.”

They also created a system for having adult greeters at the gym door each day and established that the school’s signal for quiet (a raised hand) would need to be used consistently to ensure an orderly assembly. In addition, they decided how they would communicate with families about the change in routine.

Superb teaching cinched it

Once the team had these procedures and plans in place, they wrote guidelines to help teachers introduce, model, and practice the expected behaviors with their classes.

“They left nothing to chance,” says Steve. “The expectations were clear and reasonable, and the teaching of them was superb.” Posters stating the expected assembly behavior were also displayed prominently as reminders. As a result, the students knew exactly what was expected of them, and they lived up to these expectations. Steve notes that every time visitors come to the assembly, they remark on its calm, respectful, and joyful tone. “It’s all in the teaching,” he tells them.

“The entire day goes better as a result”

While some members of the staff were initially reluctant, everyone was on board after just a few weeks of holding the morning assembly. “Staff members were amazed at what a difference it made in the tone of the day,” recalls team member Alida Ressa. “Teacher after teacher remarked about the calming effect that the new routine had on students. They talked about a more peaceful and productive start to the day as well as the entire day going better as a result.” Teachers also appreciated the fact that announcements and the pledge were done in the morning assembly, which allowed them to begin their classroom day right away.

Students, too, like the assembly. “I like seeing all the smiling faces and being greeted at the door when I come to school each day,” says a fifth grader. “It helps me feel good in the morning, and it lets me know what to expect for the day.”

Ideal Elementary School Demographics

Setting: a suburb of Chicago
Grades: K–6
Number of students: 245
Number of classrooms: 13
% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 40%

Tags: Arrival time, Building Schoolwide Community, Whole-school meetings