School Climate

How to Build 'Inclusive, Safe, Engaging' Schools

A nonprofit that focuses on improving the climate for learning has released two reports intended to help school leaders understand how to create "safe, engaging school communities." The National School Climate Center (NSCC) derived the contents from a convening of 170 education leaders, researchers and student activists that took place in October 2017. The purpose of the summit was to share individual experiences. It was sponsored by NSCC and Facebook for Education, that company's social professional learning community.

Attendees participated in panel discussions and small focus groups, where they shared strategies, programs and policies they've adopted to improve their own school climates. Those discussions were analyzed for common themes. Then, following the event, the organization visited six districts around the country to do interviews and make observations. Both of these activities formed the basis of the reports.

The "Connecting Communities of Courage" report recapped four themes that grew out of the summit discussions:

Mission. Every school has to reach consensus among its myriad stakeholders in developing a mission. The mission needs to be "shared and promoted widely and frequently reviewed and enhanced" to bolster alignment across the priorities and programs in the school. The purpose is to create a "defining template for unifying the hearts and minds of all members of the school community," which includes "strategic channels" for communication. As one superintendent shared, "This past year, we changed where our students were suspended out of school. They actually come and stay in our building. They're with us. So we visit them. We do schoolwork with them. We talk about what happened. We actually have a connection with students who are in trouble. And I think that that's really made a difference because I have kids who are suspended who come up to my secretary and say, 'I need to make an appointment with the superintendent. I need to talk to her because I think I'm ready to come back and I'd like to have the conversation with her.'"

Wellness. This focus promotes schools' participation in making sure their students are engaged in classroom, extra-curricular and community-based activities that lead to social, emotional, mental and physical health. "We have to look outside of our own education paradigm for solutions as well; there is a lot to learn," said one participant. "Outside of education we can learn a lot from other areas, for example, learning from the medical paradigm where they have moved from treating symptoms to wellness."

Innovative implementation of best practices. School leadership teams need to examine the research to understand what is " true when selecting individual and whole school improvement strategies." Along with that, however, they also need to use their understanding of the "local context" to innovate in achieving their mission. Implementing best practices, the report added, should be a "participatory learning experience for everyone in the school community."

Integration. Those best practices in social and emotional learning and school climate improvement need to be integrated with academic content and instruction. "Fostering self-awareness, emotional regulation, empathy and responsible decision-making are the fundamental skills of SEL, and teachers must embody them in order to teach them," the report explained. "Since stress management is an intrinsic element of SEL, training teachers in this domain will also provide a way to prevent burnout and gain greater job satisfaction."

The "Lessons from the Field" report profiled the school climate work being done in six school districts and shared best practices from them. Among the lessons were these two:

Leadership is needed to galvanize school community engagement. "The working style of these diverse leaders was characterized by a focus on continuous innovation, openness to feedback, and prioritizing the well-being of students and all school constituents," the field report stated. "In addition, these leaders were [willing] to take bold stands on issues that might 'stir the pot' or break with standard ways of operating in order to prioritize a positive schooling experience for all students and community members." For example, in two of the sites interviewed, principals said staff "had expressed frustration with leadership, and that leaders had to recognize and address staff concerns as a crucial initial step in improving school climate throughout the district."

Dealing with the "challenge of conflict" will deepen trust among students and teachers. "Dealing with conflict is an inevitable element of school life, and the manner in which it is done has a significant bearing on students' experiences of their school," the report explained. "Students must be provided with the appropriate tools to effectively deal with discord." During the site visits, the authors asserted, "we found that students responded best when conflict was normalized and addressed candidly." One of the schools described has recently begun trying out a practice they called "circling up." On Monday mornings, the class would gather to discuss "an ongoing concern in the classroom." They'd cover what had worked previously and how they could approach the problem in the coming week. On Fridays, they'd reconvene to assess how the new tactics worked.

"Creating a positive school climate -- one in which students and adults are engaged, supported and respected -- can improve both academic and positive life outcomes for young people," said Whitney Allgood, CEO of the NSCC, in a statement. "These two reports represent more than a year of research, discussion and on-the-ground work from people who are dedicated to this important goal. The reports provide powerful, thought-provoking insight from a diverse group of school districts and education leaders to support and inform school climate work throughout the country."

Both reports are openly available on the NSCC website, along with video clips from one of the panels that took place during the summit.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.