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A Different Type of Climate Change

Why are some schools a good fit for some kids while others are not? It might come down to finding the right school culture for your child.

In my son Levi’s junior year of high school, my husband and I realized we were losing him.

He was healthy, his grades were exceptional, there was no substance abuse, mental illness, no brushes with the law—none of the typical red flags. But he had gone dark.

He sunk to a level of despair and misery that was truly frightening. And it was because he hated school. Upon questioning, his classes were “fine,” teachers “fine,” kids “mostly jerks” but more or less fine. It was the place, the whole system—the culture—of his large, fairly-typical, suburban high school that was killing his spirit, and I say this without melodrama.

Naturally, not every school is a fit for every student, which is why the school choice movement began back in 1954 and later grew into the charter school movement of the early 1990s. But climate and culture transcend the negotiables of curriculum, learning style, and teaching philosophy. A healthy climate and culture assures that students are treated as holistic beings rather than products of an industrialized system, and is essential for every school.

What is School Climate and Culture?

The terms “climate” and “culture” are often used interchangeably, or as a single descriptor. The terms—as defined by both the National School Climate Center (NSCC) and the National School Climate Council—refer to the overall quality and character of school life based on the patterns of students’, parents’, and personnel’s experiences. The broad concepts include safety, relationships, teaching, and learning, and the organizational and physical structures of school life.

“Essentially it’s the way that people experience their school community,” says Dr. Whitney Allgood, CEO of the NSCC. “Do they feel respected, heard, engaged? Do they feel emotionally and physically safe? Are their basic needs met? Is there a shared vision? Do they trust that other people are acting along with the value and vision that’s been communicated?” The NSCC helps schools measure and improve in these areas.

Every school and district has a distinct climate and culture, to be sure, but not every school, district, and state is equally intentional about building and ensuring a healthy culture aligned to their beliefs and values. In many schools, culture simply evolves over time, for better or for worse.

At Mountain Phoenix Community School in Jefferson County, teachers stand at classroom doors, greeting each student by name with eye contact and a handshake. Research shows this practice supports emotional connection and improves achievement. Without this intentional cultural choice it becomes very easy for a teacher to allow students to simply file to their desks and start filling out worksheets without greeting or interaction, as is common practice in many secondary school settings.

Jefferson County Open School (JCOS) is another school committed to building healthy culture. Prior to his senior year, Levi was granted a spot, and within weeks the happy, open, energetic kid we remembered began to reappear. He summarized the cultural shift: “At JCOS, we’re treated like people.”

He highlighted the ways in which his multi-grade-level advisement class became like a family due to intentional team building, daily circle discussions for problem-solving and healing, and out-of-classroom bonding and learning activities. These practices facilitated the connections he had been previously unable to navigate on his own.

“We had four-year advising groups at my other school but it was basically a second study hall. I didn’t even know all the kids’ names,” says Levi. “Whereas at JCOS, they make the advising group the heart of your whole experience.”

Why is it Important?

Remember Abraham Maslow from your Psych 101 class? With his pyramid-shaped hierarchy of human needs, Maslow reasoned that our foundational needs of food, water, shelter, safety, and belonging must be met to a sufficient degree before we can attend to the higher levels of thinking required for learning, growing, imagining, creating, or caring about others.

“We know more now than we’ve ever known about the relationship between the affective and the cognitive domains and how all people learn,” says Allgood. “We also know that a disproportionate focus on standards-based education and assessment has caused many people to be concerned that schools have pushed out a lot of those components that create well-rounded people and a healthy learning environment.”

In other words, the pendulum swing toward raising test scores and performance-based learning, time, and budget constraints, ironically, forced us to compromise many of the cultural components that make us better learners, and better people. As a result, “There are national surveys of employers showing that they repeatedly note a lack of soft skills—like collaboration and empathy—in people entering the workforce,” adds Allgood. “And they can’t function well in a work environment.”

It only stands to reason that students can’t successfully conjugate verbs when they are dealing with bullying or trauma, and they can’t concentrate on algebra if they are hungry or have to go to the bathroom. People need to be safe, comfortable, and feel welcome in order to learn.

“If we want students to feel safe and welcome we need to start by making schools and classrooms a place where people actually want to be. Classrooms should be inviting and colorful, with windows—not fluorescent lighting,” says Kathy Zaleski, social studies teacher at Northglenn High School. Physical environment—seating, lighting, flexible schedules, movement, restroom use, snacks, recess, and restorative breaks—are all foundational to healthy culture because, as Maslow showed us, humans rarely achieve higher thinking without these basics.

How Do We Build It? 

Building and improving climate and culture starts by listening. “You can’t improve what you can’t measure,” says Allgood. The Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI) from the NSCC is a climate survey that provides an in-depth profile of a school’s strengths, while pinpointing areas for improvement based on feedback from students, family, and personnel. The data is audited and used to create an action plan that allows for considerations of each subgroup, rather than just relying on majority responses and prevalence. While Colorado does not provide or mandate culture surveys like the CSCI, a number of districts do use it, or others like it.

“We need to change the metrics of how we are measuring school success, so that whole child and social/emotional development is prioritized equally with academic achievement,” says Lucas Ketzer, interim head of school at Horizons K-8 in Boulder and founder of RiseUp Community School in Denver.

If they are not included in a school’s performance score along with academics, it’s easy for cultural concerns to fall through the leadership and funding cracks. The good news is that with 2015’s Every Child Succeeds Act, climate surveys and non-academic indicators are factored into schools’ performance ratings, providing an impetus for schools to improve these indicators to obtain the funding allotted for this purpose.

“We see clearly that students in neighborhoods and schools that have healthy culture and access to physical, social, and emotional supports consistently score higher,” says Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. “If we give this the focus it deserves, it will lead to academic success.”

Armed with data, many schools are taking positive steps in the right direction. Thomas Jefferson High School in Denver has increased student voice with monthly You Talk, We Listen classroom roundtable discussions. They also require every student to be involved in a club or team to assure a significant connection to at least one adult. The Girls Athletic Leadership Schools (GALS) and The Boys School of Denver are founded on research around movement, mindfulness, and a holistic approach to learning. Northglenn High School, like many schools and districts around the country, has adopted restorative practices to make sure kids stay in school and connected.

“It’s a model of healthy, productive conflict resolution,” explains Zaleski. “Restorative practices have changed everything about my teaching and relationship with kids—and their relationships with each other.”

What Can Parents Do?

Ask teachers, administrators, and school board members the following questions, to keep the topic of school climate and culture in the forefront.

Research political candidates, and vote for the ones that you think will most prioritize education in ways that you feel will improve school climate and culture. While Colorado has one of the strongest economies in the country, we are one of the lowest in education funding: $2,700 below the national average per pupil. “Our schools are doing great things with very little but we could be doing amazing things,” says Baca-Oehlert.

Finally, pay attention to students themselves, and recognize their gifts. Ketzer confirms: “Our success at RiseUp was accomplished by our students because we saw the incredible gifts they could bring to our school when they were given a chance to feel safe, connected, and respected.”

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