We all want schools to have a culture of high achievement. A place where students are challenged; where they have the freedom to think creatively, where they are pushed by their teachers; where they are more than test scores; and where they go on to exceed all of their hopes and dreams and our hopes and dreams for them. Education reformers spend countless hours and dollars to create high performing schools. But we don’t seem to take into account what research has shown us: that positive school climate is associated with positive child and youth development, effective risk-prevention and health-promotion efforts, student learning and academic achievement, increased student graduation rates, and teacher retention. Aren’t these results what we expect in a high performing school?
During the past year as a Stoneleigh Fellow, I have had the privilege to immerse myself in the issue of how to provide for positive school climate throughout the district. I often find myself thinking about a conversation that I had with a School District of Philadelphia principal. This principal had made great strides towards improving his school’s climate. During our conversation, I was pressing him about what he had put in place to create a safe, secure and positive school environment. He told me that creating a positive school climate and school culture isn’t “rocket science,” but simply about creating a culture of care.
There are many schools in the Philadelphia system that have created a culture of care. For instance, I visited a middle school that was in its first year of implementing restorative practices. During the course of the day, I watched classrooms using restorative circles to talk about the school’s new lateness policy. Students held thoughtful discussions about the pros and cons of being late and, together with teachers, they talked about why this policy was needed and how they could help to prevent students from coming to school late. Later that day, I observed a circle with two staff members and four young ladies. It was convened because the staff over heard the students talking about fighting each other. During the course of the circle, they talked about what led to the fight, how it made the participants and the bystanders feel, what they could lose by fighting, and what was to gain. In the end, the students acknowledged that they did not have to be friends, but apologized and said they didn’t want to fight each other.
In Chicago I visited an elementary school where there has been an intensive and pro-longed focus on social-emotional learning, or SEL. Children as young as pre-K talked about SEL – how to acknowledge their feelings, how to calm down, how to pay attention. A classroom of 7th graders discussed what happens within the body when you are scared, or angry or upset. The school developed a “peace center,” where students recognized when they were upset, asked an adult to go to the center, and gave themselves the time to calm down.
Another school I visited had established a “morning meeting” where all adults in the building were assigned a group of students in different grades. These groups met every Monday morning to talk about things that happened the week before and over the weekend. The groups supported each other through difficulties and celebrated successes.
Indeed, it wasn’t rocket science that created positive school climate, but rather the simple notion that it is important to recognize the social and emotional needs of students and to provide the safe space to help them process, understand and quiet the clamor. The common thread that I found to creating a positive school climate was that the leadership in the schools made this a priority for learning and spent time to establish, develop, teach, and reinforce norms that addressed the social, emotional, and physical safety of the students.
Administrators, teachers, and school based staff have to be given time to assess their current school climate and then set school-wide norms and expectations together. When this requires assistance, the district must have trained staff available to provide support. Though our teachers are caring, loving and nurturing, they need to be offered professional development on trauma, resilience, grit, and brain development. With a 24% poverty rate, too many fathers in prison, and unsafe streets and communities, too many of Philadelphia district children are coming to school with stress overload and in fear. Our teachers need help understanding how this impacts a child’s ability to learn, listen, interact with adults and other students, and simply sit still. They need the skills to address problems before, during, and after they arise in a positive and teachable way. And when the situation demands it, they need access to and support from counselors, social workers, and psychologists. They need the support to hold students accountable for their behavior and actions, but not to punish them for the natural reactions they are having to conditions they cannot control.
The principal was right -- creating a positive school climate isn’t rocket science. It’s hard work and time consuming, but a safe and secure environment built upon a foundation of communication and trust is fundamental to student success.
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Jody Greenblatt has a significant record of working with the child and youth serving systems in Philadelphia. As a consultant for the Southeast Regional Office of Children, Youth and Families, she was responsible for developing and implementing policies governing the Department of Public Welfare's licensing of county child welfare agencies, residential facilities, foster care facilities and adoption agencies. Jody also developed an interpretive guide of child welfare regulations and provided training for the staff of the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. Additionally, Jody worked as a juvenile master presiding over truancy and child welfare hearings. Prior to her fellowship, Jody was a Law Clerk at the Court of Common Pleas, Family and Criminal Divisions.
Updated: September 11 2013