How to build student culture with Hrag Hamalian

Hrag Hamalian is the Chief Executive Officer at Bright Star Schools, a charter network that serves over 2,700 K-12 students in Los Angeles. The network’s 7 schools serve the neighborhoods of Panorama City, Koreatown, and West Adams. Hrag is executing on a growth strategy that will add 2 more elementary schools in the next few years. When complete, Bright Star will offer a contiguous K-12 (elementary, middle, and high-school) experience in each of its 3 neighborhoods.

Thriving Schools: What are the 3 most important foundations of strong student culture?

Hrag: First and foremost, you need to have absolute respect for the child and their needs. They need to know that you have their best interests in mind. That means we’re going to hire individuals that embody that value and we’re going to have practices and policies that make that clear. The second item is that you need to have strong modeling from the adults. Students need to see what appropriate behavior, work ethic, and professionalism look like from the teachers and staff that are around them. The third piece that I want to mention is the ability to operationalize policies and procedures that create clear expectations and make it easy for students to live up to them. A lot of people get this backwards. They try to operationalize systems and procedures without building the culture of respect that is necessary to sustain them.

Thriving Schools: So when you examine student culture in other urban-school environments, would you argue one of these foundations is missing? Or is something else to blame for high levels of student misbehavior and apathy?

Hrag: The first thing I’ll say is that people’s understanding of how culture works is flipped. A lot of people think a school’s culture is predicated on academic excellence, but it’s quite the opposite. Academic excellence is predicated on student and school culture. Two, I think systems in many schools are set-up to prioritize the wrong thing. Most schools are so focused on performance, they ask questions like: “How do we get the test scores we want” or “What assessments do we need to create?” But unless you have instilled in children the fundamental attitude of “I want to learn” they’re never going to meet your expectations. A final thought - if accountability for our schools was reversed, and we focused on school culture, what that looks like, and how students gravitate towards it, folks would find it much easier to build off that and get the test scores and academic performance they desire.

Thriving Schools: Let’s examine each of the 3 foundations you mentioned in a little bit more detail. How do you ensure you get the respect element right?

Hrag: We try to root this out in our hiring process. Other organizations spend most of their time thinking about the skillset a teacher will bring and place little emphasis on the teacher’s personality and mindset. Our process is quite the opposite. We probably spend 85-90% of our interview process asking questions like: “Who are you?” “Why do you want to work here?” “What do you believe?” “Do you have a growth mindset?” And then only the last 10% is focused on specific skills needed for the classroom. So we’ve flipped the dynamic. Again, we’re much more focused on finding great people who are aligned with our ideas of respect and love for our kids.

Thriving Schools: How does the second foundation you mentioned – modelling – look at Bright Star?

Hrag: Our staff is expected to participate in the school environment in the same way we want our students to. That means teachers aren’t sitting behind their desks with their doors closed. They’re either teaching or out involved in some student activity. This also applies throughout the whole organization – it applies to me. I spend at least 3 days a week out on our campuses. I’ll do my work in the teacher’s lounge or I’m out visiting classes.

Thriving Schools: What can you tell us about operationalizing policies? What does that mean?

Hrag: We actually created a 25-page rubric around school culture. We took the time to think about what the fundamental components of school culture are and then we put together a long laundry list of items to demonstrate what excellence would look like for each component. We constantly measure each of our schools against that rubric. Often, we find a school that is excellent in one piece of the rubric but needing to make growth somewhere else.

Thriving Schools: Sticking on this point, what does this look like from a student’s perspective? How does a student interact with the policies and programs in place?

Hrag: Well, let me give you an example. Each school also has its own set of culture systems. At our three middle schools it’s what we call “PREP” – Professionalism, Respect, Engagement, and Preparedness. Based on those values, we assess students in a few different ways. First, students are assessed on a daily basis – they lose or gain points based on their upholding of the values, and then a report is sent home based on their performance each week. Also, students are assessed as a cohort. That means every class has to defend with their teacher how they embraced the values at the end of each class period and whether they should receive cohort points. These points then become currency in our schools that can be used at the school store, in a school auction, or for special field trips and prizes. We’re basically making our values tangible and fun for students because at the end of the day, they’re kids! We also have an advisory curriculum that is built on the school’s values. There is a similar system of values like this at each of the schools in our network from elementary to high school.

Thriving Schools: Any other thoughts you can share with us on building student culture?

Hrag: I would just say that it took us a very long time to get here. Our culture didn’t just appear overnight. I also think my own experience in school was helpful in developing my thoughts here. I had an immigrant background and was an ELL learner. But I was able to be successful because of the community my public school created. And so I knew I had to emulate that.

Note: We also chatted with Hrag about restorative justice practices at Bright Star and how he thinks about staff culture. We’ll be posting his thoughts on those topics soon!