School Climate: Your Rock Foundation
So you're thinking your school has a good vibe. Kids appear to be happy. Parents are relatively engaged. Staff seem fairly upbeat. You're good, right? Maybe not.
Absent a stakeholder team to ensure climate is a priority, the foundation of your school just may be built on sand. The moment an external force pushes down a “new” initiative or budget cuts mean working more with less, the foundation may just wash away.
School climate is not an add on. It’s not something to talk about after curriculum, instruction and assessment. School climate is the foundation on which successful schools are built, ensuring students and staff alike are working in a safe, secure and engaging learning environment while parents feel a sense of pride for where their kids go to learn and grow everyday. So just what is school climate?
The National School Climate Center defines school climate as the quality and character of school life. School climate is based on patterns of students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life; it also reflects norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching and learning practices, and organizational structures.
So what next? Start with three essential steps...
Establish a school climate team. One that represents a diverse group of school and community stakeholders. Start with students who are an essential voice, will tell it like it is and give significant insight as to their day to day school experience. Next, teacher representation is key. No other group can speak to the learning conditions which are prepared, planned and implemented each day. And don’t forget support staff, be it a school counselor, nurse or administrative assistant, to offer an out of classroom perspective. Then find a parent or two, and not the one who runs the PTA, but someone who can bring a realistic out of school position. Finish with administrative representation, one that can reinforce and push the importance of the work to the broader school community. Think whole child by grounding your conversations in ASCD’s Whole Child Tenets.
Analyze school and community data. Lots of data. Begin to understand school wide conditions by tapping into your student database management system to pull the likes of grade distributions, attendance records and suspension rates. Administer a school climate survey which captures anonymous student, parent and staff perspectives and further identifies school climate strengths and areas in need of growth. Leverage focus groups to collect personal perspectives and narratives of key stakeholders. Ask tons of questions. What does this data say about school climate? Which groups might be at risk? What data are we missing? Where else might we look for feedback? Use a data analysis protocol from the National School Reform Faculty.
Create a School Wide Action Plan. Be proud and celebrate what is going well but set clear goals and outcomes to address identified areas in need of growth. Think SMART Goals. Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time bound. Be flexible but accountable. Who will be responsible for what, when and how? There is nothing worse than a plan that just sits there on the shelf. Honor the commitment of your school climate team and put students at the center of each goal without forgetting parents and staff. Allow time for reflection, re-calibration and revision before beginning the continuous cycle of school climate improvement all over again.
Make no mistake, positive or negative, school climate is the fabric of a school. It's what we see when we walk in the door, it's what we think when we engage with others and it's what we feel when we start the day. Relationships, connections, bonds. Get them right and learning will flourish. Engagement will rise. And yes, even test scores, will soar.