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Yearlong Themes: Principals Use Them to Build Spirit, Achievement

Does your school use a yearlong theme to motivate students and increase student achievement? Education World's "Principal Files" team shares a dozen ideas to help others see the power and potential of using yearlong, school-wide themes.

Many school principals have discovered the power and potential of using school-wide themes to build school spirit, morale, camaraderie, and test scores.

At Lewis Vincent Elementary School in Denham Springs, Louisiana, this year's theme is teamwork and the slogan is "We're On the Same Team."

"Themes are a great way to coordinate all activities throughout the year," Vincent Elementary's principal, Carol Robertson, told Education World. "Our teachers and I choose a theme before we leave for the summer. That way, everyone can be looking during the summer for ideas and suggestions for incorporating that theme into teaching, projects, school improvement, and prizes."

Build a Theme

With a little creativity -- and perhaps even a lot of staff input -- any school can create a theme that will motivate and inspire spirit and achievement. If you aren't sure of your ability to come up with a theme, why not share this article (or a few of the ideas in it) with your staff? Challenge them to work together or in small groups to brainstorm theme ideas that will provide a special focus and some fun for next school year.

This year's "teamwork" theme is carried out in countless ways, including...

  • The student and teacher handbooks for the year are set up like playbooks; pages have a "Game Plan for a Winning Season" logo on them.
  • The principal's weekly bulletin is called the Game Plan for the Week, and it includes features such as the Practice Schedule, Statistics, and Pep Talk.
  • A student Hall of Fame will honor two students in each class with a special lunch five times during the year. Their induction will be announced over the P.A. and their "trading cards" -- complete with picture, name, and stats -- will appear on a bulletin board in the main hall.
  • The theme is carried over into family nights throughout the year. September's family night was the "Lewis Vincent World Series." All students had to bring at least one fan; 203 players and more than 203 fans were "in the stands" that night to see teachers demonstrate all-star language arts strategies. The Mathematics Super Bowl is on tap for January. Teachers will wear their jerseys and share math games and strategies that promote educational excellence.
  • A football-field display in the hall promotes reading. For every 100 books a class reads they make a 10-yard gain. They score a touchdown when the class has read 1,000 books. The class that makes the most touchdowns will win a pizza party at the end of the school year.

"One of my favorite ideas this year was generated by the School-Wide Positive Behavior Team," Robertson told EdWorld. "Each class has a pennant in their classroom. Every player's name is on the pennant. If a child gets a recess detention, their name comes down until the end of the quarter. I get to present incentives at the midway point and at the end of the quarter. All of our players want to be on the 'winning team'."

Themes Can Be a
Great Fallback

A powerful theme can serve as a powerful fallback when problems come up during the school day. If a teacher can relate the problems to the yearlong theme, that teacher has taken a giant step toward solving the problem. Being able to put issues in that kind of perspective is a huge support to teachers.

Themes aren't just for kids, added Robertson. She plans theme-related events for staff and professional development meetings too. And this year every staff member is assigned to a team. They are vying for the 'Best Record' of the month. The team that has signed in on time the most, been on their duty posts on time, and has the least number of absences gets to order out for lunch. The team that has the best 'scorecard' for the year will get to go out to lunch during the last week of school.

"As you can tell, I love themes," added Robertson. "Themes make it easy to coordinate all aspects of the educational program, and they serve as great motivators. Our school has had a theme for 11 years now."


At Rock Hall (Maryland) Middle School (RHMS), the four keys to success that are alluded to in their "Keys4Success at RHMS" theme are Respect, Responsibility, Safety, and Persistence. "Posters 'advertising' those themes are placed throughout the school," principal Nina Newlin told Education World. "Each week we award a 'Key of the Week' to a student from each grade and to a staff member who exemplify the key of the week."

Any student or staff member can nominate someone to receive a Key of the Week. RHMS citizens awarded those keys receive a lanyard with a colored key hanging from it. The keys are different colors: blue for respect, red for responsibility, green for safety, and purple for persistence. The four keys alternate on a weekly basis throughout the school year. The keys are also the focus of special character lessons presented by teachers during students' advisory periods, added Newlin.

"I announce the key winners over our televised news program every Monday morning," Newlin explained. "The recognized student gets to wear the key for the entire week. The key earns students various privileges. For example, the student might be able to use the key as a hall pass or to be first in the lunch line and to sit where he or she wants in the cafeteria. Students who earn the keys are also recognized on a bulletin board in the front hallway of the school, and they receive ice cream certificates from a local store. In addition, we are planning to enter key winners in drawings for school T-shirts.

"We are very proud of our Keys4Success program. We feel it makes a difference in the behavior of our students. Furthermore, it gives us a powerful way to recognize those students who not only do things right, but also choose to do the right thing."


At O.C. Allen Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois, this year's theme is "It's All About Respect." The theme is emphasized throughout the year in hallways, assemblies, and classrooms. "We use the theme in many ways," principal Karen Mink told Education World. "Our students have set expectations revolving around four themes of respect -- respect yourself, respect others, respect property, and respect learning."

Teachers have abundant opportunities to relate the themes to issues that come up during the school week. "We use the word 'respect' when talking about desired behaviors and when praising our students for respecting one another," said Mink, adding, "It is going really well. We are pleased with our choice of theme this year."

Of course, Aretha Franklin's hit song, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T", is very familiar to students. In addition, Mink points out, our fourth-grade students created a couple raps with the respect theme in mind.

R is for Rules that we follow at Allen School.
E is for Earning lots of Panther Paws.
S is for Sharing our Skills for Life.
P is for Pillars of Character Counts.
E is for Each other, and that's who we respect.
C is for Cool and cool is Allen School.
T is for Teachers and teachers show our word.
R...e...s...p...e...c...t... RESPECT!

The other rap is...

Double Double Res Res
Double Double Pect pect
Double Res Double Pect
Double Double Respect
Double Double Allen
Respect -- It's the best
Come on -- Cheer it on
Respect helps others
Come on -- Bring it on.

The theme also fits in perfectly with the fact that Allen Elementary is a PBIS Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) School, added Mink.


In Carmel, New York, Kent Primary School is a school in the midst of change. "We have transitioned from a K-2 building to a K-4 building over the past two years," explained principal Joan Pinkerton. It was only appropriate that a "new school" have a new identity to accompany it.

"A Spirit Committee of parents and teachers was put together to help with the transition," explained Pinkerton. The committee decided that creating a school mascot might be a great first step and a way to increase school spirit.

"At the end of last year, students chose a new mascot by secret ballot," said Pinkerton. "The result of the voting was an amazingly well kept secret all summer long. Then, at an assembly during the first week of this school year, the eagle was unveiled as our school mascot.

Bible Verses as
Yearlong Themes

At Airdrie Koinonia Christian School in Airdrie, Alberta (Canada), a Bible verse serves as the school year's theme. "Each year we choose a specific verse around which we develop our year," said principal Brian Hazeltine. This year's verse is Philippians Chapter 2, Verse 3:

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves."

"We can do a lot with this one verse," added Hazeltine. "Whether we are lining up to go somewhere -- Are some children pushing to get to the head of the line? -- or responding to victory on the sports court -- Do we really want to rub it in? -- we can use this verse to teach humility and kindness towards others.

"We don't teach children, of course, that others are more important than we are -- we are all precious in God's sight -- but we do want them to regard each other as more important."

"The committee also designed a 'Spirit Day' where all staff wore their eagle shirts, compliments of our PTO, and students wore their eagle shirts or our school colors. Each child in the school created a version of the eagle from a template and all of those eagles were hung in our front lobby. Every student eagerly looked for his or her eagle hanging on the wall."

The school's new mascot is serving as a nice unifying theme for this school year. Each day the student who reads the morning announcements ends with the signoff "KPS (Kent Primary School) stands for Knowledge, Pride, Success... Go Eagles!"

The Spirit Committee is working on other activities that will keep the momentum going as the year progresses, added Pinkerton. "It is nice to see teachers, parents, and students working together to make our school's 'Knowledge, Pride, Success' slogan a reality."


Themes have been a part of Weatherly Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, for many years, according to principal Teri Stokes. "They are a great way to focus the entire school," Stokes told Education World. "Even our PTA joins in."

This year, Weatherly's theme is "BEAR with Weatherly!" BEAR is an acronym for Be Excited About Reading. "We have the Beary Nice Readers Hall of Fame that will spotlight our readers all through the year," explained Stokes. "Large banners are outside the school, and signs are scattered within the school. During American Education Week/Children's Book Week our hallways will be named after books, with some liberties taken. For example, one hallway will be Beary Potter Lane. Others will be named Amelia Bear-delia Avenue, Lord of the Bears Boulevard, Beauty and the Bear Lane... During that week, we will focus on expository and fictional reading about bears.

"Last year was an election year, so we chose 'Weatherly ELECTS to Learn' as our theme. We found many resources for this topic in library supply catalogs such as Demco and Jump Start. We explored the process of elections and campaigns schoolwide. Another year our theme was 'Reading Will Take You EVERYWHERE'. Each grade level was a different continent; they did thematic studies about their continent and shared their learning across the grades. That was one of the most popular themes with teachers and students, because it could be expanded so much and it fit so many subjects."

Another theme lasted a couple years, said Stokes. In that "HATS Off to Learning" theme, the word HATS was an acronym for Habits, Attitudes, Talents, and Skills. Each 9-week period was focused on one of the HATS words.

"Next year we are considering 'Be A Weatherly STAR', with STAR being an acronym for Students That Always Read," added Stokes.


At Parham School in Cincinnati, Ohio, this year's theme is "Academic Success Under Construction." Assistant principal Bonita Henderson told Education World that the theme lends itself to lots of lessons -- and word play too. "We are 'cutting' out all distractions, 'tightening' our study habits, 'hitting' the books, 'measuring' our success, and 'nailing' those TESTS!" said Henderson.

"When school staff introduced the theme to students at the start of the year, all of us wore yellow plastic construction hats," said Henderson, "and there is a bulletin board near the office that displays a variety of plastic play-tools with messages that serve as reminders about our yearlong theme."

In addition, Henderson told Education World, the school's uniform shirts sport the "Academic Success Under Construction" slogan.


Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School is a new school this year. The school is the result of the merging of two middle schools, each of which had strong programs and activities for their students and staffs. "Therefore, this year our theme is 'Where We Are Building a Strong Foundation'," explained principal Dr. Layne Hunt.

"We all believe that the foundation upon which a program is built will determine its sustainability. We also know that our students need to have a place where they feel the people and programs are solid and stable. We want the message to be sent far and wide that we are building for our students, parents, and staff a strong foundation.

"Above the front entrance to our school, and throughout the school, the words, 'As I enter these doors I am prepared to learn' are on display," added Hunt. "Those are the words we repeat throughout the day to our students."


This year's theme at Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School, a K-3 school, is "Keys to Character Unlock the Future."

"We are part of a county-wide character education initiative, and each month's Word of the Month corresponds with traits that are part of that initiative," explained principal Addie Gaines. "We are getting school T-shirts with the character traits on the back of them -- sponsored by local utility companies -- and committees of third grade students are planning assemblies to kick off each month's character trait."

In addition, Gaines told Education World, children will write about one of the character traits and read that composition over the intercom during the school's morning announcements. "Getting to talk over the intercom is a big deal to the kids," added Gaines.

Themes are not a new thing at Kirbyville Elementary. Gaines shared with Education World news of a couple themes from previous years.

"Linking for Success." When this was the school's theme, each student received a red mini carabiner to hang from their backpacks. That "link" served as a symbol of the theme; teachers talked with students about the importance of working together. "During the year, when someone in a class did something to contribute to the overall success of the class or the school, the student earned a link for a chain that was displayed in the school's entryway," explained Gaines. "Each grade was represented by a certain color in the chain, and each month the chains from each class were added to the school chain as a visual reminder of how strong a school we are when we all work together."

"Destination Learning." Another year's theme was "Destination Learning... Go, Grow, Know, Show." At the kick-off assembly for that theme, students learned that 'Destination Learning' meant two things," explained Gaines. "Its literal meaning referred to our school as a destination for learning, but, more figuratively, we talked about the theme meaning that we all set goals for learning." The remainder of the theme's slogan referred to Go (setting a goal), Grow (moving toward that goal), Know (self-evaluating progress toward the goal), and Show (celebrating accomplishments). "Students received a small toy compass to hang from their backpacks as a reminder of why we come to school each day," added Gaines. Students set personal learning goals that were displayed throughout the school. Those goals were revisited quarterly and students added stars under the goals to show how they were growing, how they knew they were making progress, and to 'show' what they have learned.


Not every school principal is as creative as Addie Gaines and the other members of our Principal Files team. Not every school principal can come up with a new theme year after year that resounds with students, staff, and parents. But if you use the brainpower of your staff, no telling what great theme might result. So, at one of your upcoming staff meetings, why not present as examples a few of your favorite ideas from this article? Then challenge teachers to work on their own or in grade-level teams to come up with a theme idea that will enhance spirit, inspire motivation, and spell success for your students.


"Principal" Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education World's "Principal Files" team shared their thoughts about school-wide themes in this article. To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
  • Addie Gaines, principal, Kirbyville (Missouri) Elementary School
  • Brian Hazeltine, principal, Airdrie Koinonia Christian School, Airdrie, Alberta (Canada)
  • Bonita Henderson, assistant principal, Parham School, Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Dr. Layne B Hunt, principal, Fair Plain Renaissance Middle School, Benton Harbor, Michigan
  • Karen Mink, principal, O.C. Allen School, Aurora, Illinois
  • Virginia Strong Newlin, principal, Rock Hall Middle School, Rock Hall, Maryland
  • Joan Pinkerton, principal, Kent Primary School, Carmel Central School District, Carmel, New York
  • Carol Robertson, principal, Lewis Vincent Elementary School, Denham Springs, Louisiana
  • Dr. Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary, Huntsville, Alabama
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Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2010, 2017 Education World


Originally published 11/07/2005
Last updated 06/21/2017