How Prioritizing Culture Boosted Attendance, Academics in a Virginia Middle School

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This article was written by Roger Riddell on February 29, 2024 and published by K-12 Dive.


Starting as a principal during a pandemic is a difficult proposition on its own. But doing so while striving to turn around school culture? A seemingly Herculean task.

Yet at Bayside Sixth Grade Campus in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Principal Shampriest Bevel has done just that since taking on the role in 2021. Her mission, as she saw it, started from a place of putting student and teacher voice first during the global crisis.

“When I first got here — and during that time especially — I was like, ‘Oh, I need to really focus on what people really needed’ as opposed to worrying about the numbers and accreditation,” Bevel, the 2023 Virginia Principal of the Year and a 2024 National Principal of the Year finalist, told K-12 Dive. “I wanted to just take care of people.”

Over the course of our conversation, Bevel detailed why focusing on culture at the 327-student school is key, how those efforts have impacted attendance, academics and teacher retention, and her advice for other middle-grade leaders.

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

K-12 DIVE: How important is it to prioritize school culture, and how did you set out to do that?

SHAMPRIEST BEVEL: From the very beginning, I spent time just getting to know staff and making sure I knew students by their names and got backstories as much as possible. For example, when I first started, there was a goal to increase attendance. And I remember looking at the goals and saying, “The focus can’t be on attendance, because the story goes much deeper than that.”

One of the first things I did was I pulled a student group. I told the teachers, “I want everybody to pick your most vocal students from their homerooms. I’m not worrying about behavior or anything else. I just want the most vocal students.” And I made that my first attendance focus group.

I just asked the kids, “What do you miss about elementary school? What did you want to see or participate in for middle school?” And I got all these neat ideas from the kids, and I used that as the way to leverage student voices and make school about what they wanted, rather than, “Do this, do this, do this, do this.”

I wanted it to be a place that they wanted to be — and the same thing for teachers. I made sure to listen to the things in the past that might have upset them or made them start disconnecting, because there used to be a huge turnover for this particular school. Teachers would come, and then after three years, they would go.