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Audio: Building School Culture by Leading with HEART

Village Oaks Elementary School

Novi, Michigan

Alexander Ofili Principal

Building School Culture by Leading with HEART. One of the most challenging tasks for any new principal is creating school culture, particularly when a strong culture already exists. This podcast walks you through the process Principal Alexander Ofili used at Village Oaks Elementary School in Novi, MI, to do just that. Principal Ofili explains, “it dawned on me that I wanted to respect what had already been established, but at the same time, I wanted to clarify what we see as important values.”

With a mix of veteran and new teaching staff and a collaborative spirit, they harnessed the most important principles that represented the school’s culture using the acronym, HEART. He explains in the podcast, “we believe that leading with HEART…creates an environment where kids are going to do their absolute best.” To listen to the full podcast, scroll down. You can download the transcript here.

To see how students at Village Oaks lead with HEART, check out the school’s video on their website


Contact Information
Village Oaks Elementary School
Dr. Alexander Ofili, Principal at time of Nomination
23333 Willowbrook Drive
Novi, MI, 48375-3654
(248) 449-1302
Student Demographics 2018  
Number of students PreK-6 498
Students eligible for subsidized meals 15%
Students receiving special ed services 6%
ELL 21%
African American students 12%
White students 39%
Hispanic or Latino students 5%
Asian 40%
Two or more races 4%
Student mobility rate 11%


Schoolwide Parent Representation

Athens AcademyAthens Academy (Athens, GA). Athens Academy is an educational community where the students, the school, and the parents are partners. The school’s Parent Service Organization (PSO) works with administration to enhance the school’s quality of programs and academic life. Each of the four academy divisions have representatives on the PSO Executive Board. Over 100 parents hold key positions of leadership as grade representatives and/or PSO chairs and co-chairs. The Grade Representative program is another integral parent/school partnership. The program consists of two family representatives for each grade level. The representatives serve as families’ information channels and discussion groups on substantive matters relating to the school and its students. They assist in organizing parent communications, sponsoring parent orientation and social functions, and facilitating school-related social activities. They also promote the school in the community and support the school’s efforts for growth and development.

Exploration, Play, Invention, and Creativity Studio

St. Francis Xavier SchoolSaint Francis Xavier School (Wilmette, IL). In 2013, Saint Frances Xavier developed its EPIC framework to promote students and teachers’ Exploration, Play, Invention, and Creativity. The EPIC themes provide scope and purpose so that faculty make connections between the school’s mission, curriculum, and the engagement of all students. The EPIC Studio, home to technologies and out-of-the-box thinking tools, is adjacent to the library to promote project-centered activities and dialogue. During classroom EPIC hours and project-based activities, students engage in creative problem-solving, maker-skills, digital citizenship, and emerging technologies. A preschooler may access EPIC through the school’s Imagination Playground while an 8th grader may access EPIC through the school’s Biomechanics and Prosthetics Club. The EPIC framework fosters students’ curiosity, builds critical thinking skills, emphasizes fundamental STEM principles, and unlocks students’ abilities to make a difference by developing a rich tool box of skills and talents.

Student-led Service Groups

Mountain Brook ESMountain Brook Elementary School (Mountain Brook, AL). As a Lighthouse School, Mountain Brook Elementary has developed a well-rounded leadership model. Every student and teacher employ a leadership role, self-selects and tracks goals, and maintains a leadership portfolio highlighting personal accomplishments and academic achievements. Students promote the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People through leading by example and by incorporating the language in their work. Fourth through sixth graders may apply to serve on the school’s Lancer League. The League, facilitated by staff sponsors, has specialized service groups. Heralds present weekly announcements to homerooms and celebrate birthdays. Knights provide student voice to the Lighthouse Team and work with teacher sponsors to select monthly texts, related to the 7 Habits, for the entire school to read and discuss. The Legacy group designs and teaches Morning Meeting lessons that promote positive peer relationships. The Parchment group writes and publishes the student-centered school newspapers. The Scribes group designs and displays character-driven bulletin boards and assist with tracking school goals. The Squires provide tours to guests and recognize guest speakers at special events. Because of the Lancer League, there is increased student ownership of core values.

Coaching Rounds

University of Hartford Magnet SchoolUniversity of Hartford Magnet School (West Hartford, CT). University of Hartford Magnet School (UHMS) implements coaching rounds at each grade level. A week prior to the coaching round, the grade level team examines class data to determine a focus area. Then the Coach researches best practices to address the identified need and shares the plan and rationale with the team prior to instruction. On the first day of the rounds, the Coach is the lead teacher in a class while the other teachers conduct a focused observation. The team reconvenes during a debrief, and the lead teacher reflects on the effectiveness of the lesson and the team poses questions and shares their feedback. Based on the shared observations, the team then works collaboratively to map out the following day’s lesson for the next lead teacher. Each teacher becomes a lead teacher for a day. UHMS has seen benefits in changes in Tier I instruction, elevated confidence in teachers’ instructional practices, an increase in collegiality, and gains in student performance. Teachers report feeling more at ease exposing their vulnerabilities and seeking advice and support from one another. Teachers leave coaching rounds with new strategies, a clear plan for their own professional development, and a newfound trust in their teammates.

Impact of Teacher Leadership Development

Proviso Math and Science AcademyProviso Mathematics and Science Academy (Forest Park, IL). The school’s administration believes in “Teacher Leadership in Exchange for Accountability.” A team of teachers worked with administration to develop a project to build teacher leadership capacity through three activities. The activities include: distributive leadership through the development of a School Leadership Team, introduction of grade level lead teachers, and teacher-led professional development. Teacher-led professional development substantially built the capacity for teacher leadership. Teachers interested in leading professional development, aligned with school goals, had to submit a written proposal to the principal at least five weeks prior to the proposed activity. PMSA administration and department chairs provided general oversight, scheduling, and monitoring of the effectiveness of the teacher-led professional development. These activities led a successful translation to school goals and instructional growth plans that included research-based best practices and data analysis. The project’s effectiveness was measured by positive evaluations, optimized teacher participation, and strong gains on teacher leadership indicators on the 2017 Illinois 5 Essentials Survey. PMSA has deduced that teacher collaboration is the most powerful form of professional development. The project accomplished its ultimate goals: increase teacher efficacy and create a healthier overall school culture that leads to increased student growth and academic achievement.

Passages: Student-Created Courses

Steller Secondary SchoolSteller Secondary School (Anchorage, AK). Steller Secondary School, a lottery-based magnet school (grades 7-12), emphasizes student responsibility to self and to the Steller community. Students, parents, and staff participate in the democratic process of setting school policy and procedures. Students play an integral role in planning school activities. Through the Passages Program and independent study programs, students create semester classes, Passages, tailored to their own interests. Students choose a subject of interest in one of six categories: creativity, practical skills, logic and inquiry, adventure, career exploration, or community involvement. Students work with teachers to develop their course of study, methods, resources, and goals. They spend the semester pursuing their goals, sharing their progress, and getting feedback from their peers, teachers, and outside mentors. Students may also teach their own peer-taught classes, co-teach classes (with a teacher), and/or act as seminar coaches where they work with groups of eighth graders within a seminar class. Students are required to graduate with a minimum of three Passages courses and earn general elective credits.

Successful Mindsets and Behaviors

Heckquaw ESHeck-Quaw Elementary School (Belgrade, MT). At Heck-Quaw Elementary, the school counseling curriculum consists of developmentally designed lessons for each grade level (K-4). The lessons focus students on achieving the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed for social/emotional development, academic success, and college and career readiness (American School Counselor Association, 2014 Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success: K-12 College-and Career-Readiness for Every Student standards). Lessons include assorted topics: school skills, empathy/caring for others, friendship/bully-proofing, self-worth/self-esteem, emotional awareness and regulation, personal safety, problem-solving/conflict management, and career exploration/transition to middle school. In addition, students have access to group and individual counseling as needed. Mental health supports are also available for students with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). ACE trainings are also held with the staff to help deliver trauma-informed responses and practices across the school.

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