Traditions For a New School

As the founding faculty of Community Partnership School (CPS) prepared to welcome our first classes of pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, and first graders, we focused not only on the practical details of opening a school, but on developing a sense of schoolwide community. We knew that the routines and traditions we established at CPS would be a key to this, and also to fulfilling our mission: Providing children from low-income families with an excellent and affordable elementary school education.

Involving families in the life of the school was important to us, so we developed a homework routine that included parents and guardians in a meaningful way. Each day our students brought home a book for an adult to read aloud to them. A homework sheet asked the adult to note which story they read, and also served as an informal way for teachers and parents to communicate.

This daily routine helped improve students’ literacy skills and homework habits, and it connected adult family members to their children’s classrooms. For students, it demonstrated that their home experiences mattered to their teachers, and that our school community included their families.

Another tradition we started right away was a weekly Community Meeting that included music, sharing, and news—much like the Morning Meetings held in classrooms. In our first few weeks, we focused on learning songs together, playing games to remember classmates’ and teachers’ names, and practicing school routines. Later, children shared their artwork, favorite poems, dinosaur facts, and other class projects.

We ended each Community Meeting with the Kindness Jar. Throughout the week, students and teachers dropped notes describing kind actions they had witnessed into a special jar. Each Friday at meeting, we heard about and applauded the kind behaviors of their peers: I saw a first grader get off the tire swing so that a kindergartner could have a turn; My milk spilled at lunch and everyone at the table helped me clean it up; I was sick for a whole week and Ms. B. sent me funny notes with my homework. Through this tradition, students learned to notice and appreciate kind behavior. They also learned that the CPS community valued and celebrated kindness.

A few months into the school year, we tried something different at a Community Meeting, and it later evolved into a schoolwide tradition of its own. The kindergarten teacher suggested that we devote one of our Community Meetings to a talent show. However, this would not be the type of talent show where a few children performed and everyone else watched—at our talent show, anyone could demonstrate any accomplishment.

In the next few days, the halls buzzed as children chatted eagerly about what they would share. At that first talent show almost all of our students performed. First graders read from their favorite books, and one child demonstrated a science experiment. Kindergartners drummed and recited familiar class poems. Singing and improvised dance were popular, with the audience often clapping along or joining in for the chorus. Two shy pre-K students simply stood up and showed puzzles they had recently completed. Another four-year-old decided that his talent would be balancing, and he proudly stood, one-legged, on a chair with a book on his head.

At that talent show the founding faculty of CPS saw that the welcoming, supportive school community we’d dreamed of had become real. All of the children, as performers and audience members, were demonstrating curiosity, compassion, and courage—the “3 Cs” that are the framework of Community Partnership School’s Code of Conduct.

Now that Community Partnership School is entering its fifth year, some of our traditions have changed. We altered the homework routine for older students who read more independently—their parents sign their homework sheets each night, but they aren’t asked to read to them. As the number of students in the school increased, we stopped doing the Kindness Jar at Community Meeting and made it a classroom tradition instead. We also started having fourth graders plan the program for Community Meeting and take turns as Master of Ceremonies. These changes are positive; they reflect the school’s growth. Our challenge going forward will be to nurture the intimate, welcoming environment we’ve created, even as we continue to expand.

Katie Jamieson was a founding faculty member at Community Partnership School in Philadelphia, PA. She taught pre-kindergarten and served as Director of Academic Programs until 2009. CPS, an independent school, was created through a partnership between Germantown Academy and Project H.O.M.E. 

Tags: Building Schoolwide Community, Whole-school meetings