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School Culture

We believe that school culture is the foundation of teacher effectiveness and student achievement. 

The Partnership’s vision for healthy school cultures integrates restorative practices, a culture of college completion, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, and arts-rich schools. We support systems-building at school sites to create and sustain restorative communities that promote an overarching belief in adults and students alike that college completion is the north star. 

Our School Culture priorities are in service of strengthening student outcomes by:

  • Improving attendance
  • Reducing chronic absenteeism and discipline referrals for harm
  • Increasing students’ feelings of safety, happiness, and orientation toward their futures
  • Increasing college-going and completion rates

The Partnership’s vision for healthy school cultures integrates restorative practices, a culture of college completion, social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, and arts-rich schools.


As we head into our second decade of school transformation in Los Angeles, one of our most immediate goals is to increase the number of Partnership seniors accepted into and completing four-year college.

Research shows that in today’s economy, the percentage of jobs that require postsecondary education has doubled compared to the past 40 years, and that low-income students are finding it harder and harder to compete: only 10% of individuals from low-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 25. When children born into low-income families get a college degree their chances of making it to the top income brackets quadruples. 

We believe our students – and those in under-resourced communities across the country – should have the same choice as students in higher income areas about which colleges and careers to choose to achieve their goals. We holistically embrace the promise and potential our students bring with them and empower them to make their own choices, and we know that no matter what, our work is to make sure they are prepared to access and pursue four-year college. 

We emphasize a college-completing culture across our TK-12 network because we know that academic achievement in elementary school is one of the largest predictors of college readiness (often even more so than high school performance).

We use strategies that deliver on a vision in which students and families:

  • Visualize themselves as future college-going families
  • Track their college-readiness and set goals to move them towards eligibility and success
  • Experience age-appropriate activities to support college-ready behaviors

What Sets the Partnership Approach Apart

In many large districts across the country, counselors are a very scarce resource and must be allocated to support students in crisis due to homelessness, mental health issues, or exposure to violence and other traumas. In LA Unified, we know that despite the fact that counselors do meet with students to review college entrance requirements, ¼ to ⅓ of students report that they do not know the courses they need to take or whether or not they’re on track for college.  

When we started focusing on college years ago, we encouraged our schools to build college recognition by displaying banners and pennants and naming classrooms after colleges. But there were few visible signs of students accessing curricula through a lens of college culture in elementary and middle schools. The Partnership now takes a different approach:

We focus on college culture across the entire TK-12 span. We recognize that the work to support students to be college-completing is just as important in 1st grade as it is in 11th.

We partner with our schools’ Restorative and College Culture Leads (RCCLs) to focus on the work TK-12, and with our counselors in 11-12, to elevate college-completion culture as an important element of our approach to creating restorative communities and healthy school culture. 

Learn More:
College Compass – A Partnership for Los Angeles Schools Initiative

The College Compass program, a Partnership for Los Angeles Schools initiative, develops lasting college completion cultures in our network of schools and influences the District to focus on college completion for all students.
We launched the College Compass pilot during the 2018-19 year in three of our network schools to begin to change the attitude held by many of our students that college is something for other people, not for themselves. The program promotes a college-going culture through a series of experiences, shared expectations and regular communication carefully designed for students and their parents.
The College Compass initiative aims to improve college access and preparedness at all grade levels and to develop specific skills to support students’ academic achievement, college knowledge, and socio-emotional skills at all grade levels.

The College Compass begins by guiding young scholars to discover careers that interest them. As they grow older, students learn how their schooling builds the knowledge and skills that can move them toward their careers. Threaded throughout the program is the growing understanding on the part of our students and families that college and a bachelor’s degree are powerful, career-enhancing tools. The Partnership expanded the College Compass program network-wide in 2019-2020. We are confident that this work will help to shift student and family perceptions, and lead to increased college applications, acceptances and enrollment.
College Compass Vision & Strategies 
Students and families visualize themselves as future college-going families
‣ Campaign-like messaging on the importance of college as a path for all students 
‣ Survey of students (twice a year) to assess perceptions and beliefs about college as an option

Students and families track their college-readiness and set goals to move them towards eligibility and success
‣ Data trackers for students and families to show them if they are on track for college (shared with students four times per year, and with families twice per year)
‣ Goal-setting tools and activities facilitated by teachers that emphasize a growth mindset and growth-based approach to understanding where students are on the path to college

Students and families experience age-appropriate activities to support college-ready behaviors 
‣ Age-appropriate college knowledge and culture building activities for teachers, with guidance on what students should be achieving in each grade level to be successful college freshman 
‣ Public celebrations (e.g., college kick-offs, college signing days)
restorative communities

Restorative Communities promote a positive and healthy school culture by building, strengthening and (when harm occurs – including institutional and historical harm) repairing relationships through social-emotional learning, circle practice, and restorative dialogue.

Topics covered in schoolwide professional development sessions include:

  • Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Trauma-Informed Practices
  • Re-entry Restorative Practices
  • Tier 2 and 3 Supports 
  • Power, Control, Legitimacy and Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Adult Beliefs & Mindsets
  • Restorative Circle Practices

At the core of building a strong school culture is the development of restorative communities that create environments conducive to learning and achievement. 

We cultivate schools and classrooms to be restorative communities that help students feel safe physically, intellectually, and emotionally; that share decision-making power with those who are most impacted; that welcome families and community organizations as partners; that celebrate identity and promote social and racial justice; and that ultimately build on the vision of all students completing college. 

Building strong school cultures is of paramount importance in communities like the ones we serve, where students bring incredible strength and resilience but also face considerable challenges – including exposure to violence and trauma – that have historically resulted in absenteeism and disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates for students of color and students with disabilities. With an explicit focus on equity, the Partnership has shifted to a more holistic, restorative approach to school discipline and culture. By developing and cultivating restorative communities, we ensure student learning time is maximized and the root causes of behaviors, feelings and needs are addressed and supported. Since the implementation of restorative communities systems in our network of schools, suspensions have dropped from a 21% baseline to below 1%. 

What Sets the Partnership Approach Apart

The Partnership organizes its Restorative Communities work on a tiered continuum, and works closely with school teams to set schoolwide culture goals and implementation plans that address the specific needs of each school. Our framework for implementation is distinct from a traditional district approach because:

We prioritize use of restorative practices instead of traditional disciplinary methods. One example of this is the regular use of restorative circles across our network. We incorporate this indigenous practice into our work to facilitate the development of strong, trusting relationships that allow us to work together in a transformational, rather than transactional way. 

We offer formal professional development opportunities focused on restorative strategies. 

With our support, Restorative & College Culture Leads (RCCLs) coach and support teachers and school leaders at their site on practices that facilitate restorative environments.

We provide technical assistance and thought partnership to build strong systems to support school culture at each of our school sites.

We manage all supports for school sites related to the adoption and development of restorative practices.

Areas of Focus

To help build restorative communities in schools and align our leadership development programs with our site-based support, we facilitate formal professional development opportunities for school and teacher leaders to develop strategies to build the capacity of all teachers and staff, families, and community partners to model restorative practices, including de-escalation and developing socio-emotional skills in students. The Partnership team has extensive experience to facilitate professional learning, coaching, and technical and adaptive support across the network, and tailors its approach to meet the specific needs of each school site. 

Lessons Learned

Changing school culture requires a deep commitment that goes beyond discipline practices.

Reducing suspensions is one important outcome of this work, but it has sometimes caused districts to miss the forest for the trees and to lose sight of the fact that creating healthy school cultures is about setting and implementing a vision for students’ long-term postsecondary success. We have evolved over time from a more narrow focus on restorative school culture to one that is focused more broadly on college culture and the mindsets, knowledge and skills that students and adults need to realize this vision.

Getting clear on why we focus on school culture – and what we mean by it – was an essential first step.

We first focused on how to develop belief systems among the adults in our home office and our schools around the connection between school culture and college completion and build shared ownership of the work. Addressing implicit bias and supporting staff’s self-care are important aspects of this work, because adult culture models the climate for the whole school. Throughout this process, we worked to emphasize that building students’ college knowledge is not a surface-level initiative about door decorations and chants, but it’s about building a culture of goal-setting and practicing social-emotional and college-level skill-sets that are necessary for postsecondary success.

Center implementation with an asset-based, multi-tiered, integrated approach.

Depending on your school’s unique assets, build plans that differentiate and support each school based on what strengths they bring with them. At high-need schools like ours, teacher leadership and ownership is a critical lever in this work. At the same time, implementation should not depend on the teacher leader alone nor should support end at a professional development session. Observation cycles and actionable feedback on discipline practices and systems matter for implementation to be successful.

Progress monitor often, with multiple sources of data.

Student data, like attendance and discipline referrals, is only able to inform practice if monitoring is ongoing and allows schools to adjust course to meet stated goals. Data should not be used for punishment or shaming but rather for learning and growth across all stakeholder groups. We go beyond traditional measures of discipline and consider alternative measures of school culture: restorative circle practice, student surveys at the beginning and end of the year, staff attendance, qualitative data for staff listening sessions, and other non-traditional metrics to paint a robust picture of school culture.

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