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When Schools Merge, Principals Must Forge a New Culture. Here’s How

In 2016, Suzan Harris took over as a first-time principal at the Martin Luther King Elementary School in Bibb County, Ga. She faced the same challenges as any new principal—getting grades up, curbing absenteeism, supporting teachers in their professional development.

But there was an added complexity to her situation. Martin Luther Elementary was only a year old—the result of a merger between two schools with very different cultures.

One of the former schools, King-Danforth Elementary, was perceived to have more discipline problems and weaker teachers than the other school, Jones Elementary, said Harris in an interview with Education Week.

“When you look at the assessment data, they weren’t really all that different. But the judgment against one school was out and loud,” she said.

By the time Harris joined as principal—a year in—teachers from the two schools had formed their own cliques, discipline problems were legion, and the school had slipped to the bottom 5 percent of the state rankings.

“I had to merge the identity of two sets of parents, teachers, kids … and shape it under a very powerful name. How would all the kids here become “our” kids?” said Harris.

Harris is among a growing list of principals who have or likely will lead merged school entities, as districts look to tighten their belts and close schools with low enrollment rates.

It’s already happening in some places: The San Antonio district in Texas decided last November to close 15 schools and merge three pairs of schools.

Both school closures—and mergers—are hard on the communities served by the affected schools. Research has shown too, that schools with a larger concentration of Black students are three times more likely to close than other schools, raising questions about an inequitable distribution of a district’s resources.

For principals, navigating a merger successfully means attending both to the internal dynamics and the external dynamics, which often cause most of the political heat.

It can take years of planning to get it right.

“We started planning the merger in 2016 and it finally happened in 2019,” said Michael Rubin, the principal of Uxbridge High School in Uxbridge, Mass., whose school merger was part of a plan to reduce operational costs. “We closed our middle school and brought 8th graders to the high school because we wanted to give the highest number of students access to the newest facilities.”

“School leaders must navigate with a new set of people on the outside, to pull in resources for the new school,” said Ebony Bridwell-Mitchell, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who has studied the impact of school closures on communities. “Heading up a merged school is like launching a start-up. You’re building a whole new culture.”

Focus on the grown-ups

Harris’ first job as a new principal was to break through the opposing cliques that teachers and students had formed. She had to fight the perception that one set of teachers or students coming in were “worse” than the other set. And she had to tackle real problems of disruptive behavior and new teachers with insufficient training in reading and math instruction. Harris attacked culture and academics together.

To improve student behavior, Harris introduced a rewards-based behavior framework. “We modeled to kids what good behavior looks like, and we celebrated days with no [disciplinary] referrals,” said Harris.

The new school also made some structural changes to the new building. “Initially, we had a café style setup for lunch. That was the cause of a lot of fights, because with booths there wasn’t enough seating. I got enough seating [put in] for two grades to sit together. That killed a lot of the behavior issues,” said Harris. Teachers could also stay in their classrooms for lunch. That way, said Harris, it was less stressful than watching over their class in a big group.

Harris also felt the perception against one group of teachers—that they weren’t as effective in their instruction—could be fixed with more training. She struck a deal with a local non-profit organization to provide early literacy training for free and introduced manipulatives to improve math instruction. Over time, Harris said, fewer students needed extra tutoring help once these measures were launched.

With these changes, the relationship between teachers improved and the cliques dissolved.

Their energy now went into making ‘our’ school successful. New people coming into the school don’t know who’s from Jones and who’s from King-Danforth, said Harris. “It’s the adults you have to worry about.”

It’s a whole new organization

Principals might be tempted to fold in a new school, or grade, into their existing systems.

But that’s the wrong way to go about it. “You have to realize you’re becoming a new type of organization,” said Bridwell-Mitchell.

Rubin, the principal from Massachusetts, was conscious of this when his school added a new grade. He had to figure out how his existing high school students would interact with the new 8th graders.

“In a middle school, there are strict rules about which side of the corridor to pass on, or where to eat lunch. Now these kids were going to be treated like adults. Their teachers had to relinquish some control,” said Rubin.

In preparation for the merger, Rubin and his team studied other 8th to 12th grade schools, and were convinced that the new students shouldn’t be isolated in any way. They would take the same buses and join the same clubs as their seniors.

New teachers had the same experience. “We knew that middle school teachers would worry about whether their reputations carried through to the new school. Before the merger, my assistant principal went to the old middle school to meet with them. We even held some of our professional learning days there for the two groups of teachers to get to know each other,” said Rubin.

And to avoid cliques, Rubin’s team deliberately split the 8th grade teachers up, rather than creating an 8th grade team, Rubin added.

Rubin’s methods have worked, but some say such approaches need to be handled delicately. Bridwell-Mitchell’s advice to principals is not to implode preexisting groups altogether. Instead, these groups should be nurtured and slowly merged with groups in the new school.

Mergers need an external stamp of approval

Schools are intricately connected to the communities they’re located in, and a closure or merger of that school will disrupt these ties. Principals need to think about how that will affect schools’ relationships with local non-profits, local school boards, university partners, and volunteers.

“These are all resources that principals rely on to make things happen. The resources depend on concrete relationships, but they’re also based on perception of these stakeholders. When schools merge, principals must think about how these stakeholders look at the new entity,” said Bridwell-Mitchell.

Principals can continue these associations—and the resources they bring—by inviting these stakeholders into the new school. That’s what Harris did with the church leaders in her community.

“Churches who supported one school had to support ‘our’ school. We asked them to do this for MLK. That’s what changed their mindsets,” said Harris.

Improvements inside the school also built a positive image outside it, helped in part by the community service that the new school participated in. “We consciously worked on our image with the community,” Harris added.

For Rubin, one stakeholder is still particularly tricky to bring around: parents.

When Uxbridge first added an extra grade, Rubin held several parent conferences in the new school, distributed FAQ fliers, and let new students and parents walk the halls to familiarize themselves with the building. But parents still worry about sending their kids—some of whom spent nearly two years in remote learning during the pandemic—to a high school with much older kids.

“They want to stay informed about everyday behavioral issues when they cropped up. We underestimated that,” said Rubin. “Parents want to be present in every disciplinary conversation we have with their kids. That’s not how a high school operates.”

It’s a precarious balance. When schools close, and their kids have to go a new school, parents lose the connection and control they had with the old school.

“The concern stems from a loss of control,” Bridwell-Mitchell said. “It may take a lot of energy upfront but to the extent possible, principals should try and mitigate that.”

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