Q: We had a shocking assault at our middle school recently, and our principal is forming a "school climate" committee. I'm in the PTO, so she's asked me to chair it. But the PTO traditionally raises money, not spirits! Do you have any suggestions?
A: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2009-10 school year, 85 percent of public schools recorded one or more incidents of violence, theft or other crimes.
But these data alone don't explain why maintaining a good "school climate" is part of a principal's job. Research shows that in a caring school climate, students have higher grades, attendance and aspirations; they also have higher self-esteem and fewer suspensions. They have less anxiety, depression, loneliness and substance abuse.
What defines a positive school climate? Researchers at University-Community Partnerships at Michigan State University (ucp.msu.edu) describe a "physical environment that is welcoming and conducive to learning; a social environment that promotes communication and interaction; an affective environment that promotes a sense of belonging and self-esteem; an academic environment that promotes learning and self-fulfillment."
The National School Climate Center defines a positive school environment as one that "includes norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe. People are engaged and respected. Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision. Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning. Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment" (schoolclimate.org).
One key phrase is "each member of the school community," says counselor Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW Consulting: Kids Need Our Wisdom and an architect of California's School Outreach Center model.
"While principals have 'maintaining positive school climate' in their job descriptions, it's a shared responsibility. Bring teacher, administrator and student representatives to your committee. But don't stop there. Invite representatives from the custodial staff, police department, local social service and youth organizations, clergy and city hall, such as (the) mayor or (a) city council member. A range of voices will be more successful because you'll have the ideas and buy-in of the entire community."
Once your committee is in place, Gehley advises:
-- Review climate research (see resources above). Discuss what can be done immediately and what happens over time.
"For example, a 'welcoming physical environment' could mean fresh coats of paint in rooms and hallways; a good civic project over a weekend," she says.
-- Don't reinvent the wheel. Find good research-based programs, such as those from the Search Institute (search-institute.org) and tailor them to your school's needs.
-- Discuss how your plan fits with the district's plan.
"A school's culture shares the beliefs, attitudes and policies that characterize a school district's," says Gehley. "School climate defines kids' feeling of safety and engagement in the building and classrooms. Your committee can develop a school climate plan independent of your district, but the district's culture and policies can either support or undermine the climate at your building."
-- Be specific and consistent in executing your policies.
"If you want to 'promote a sense of belonging' for students, discuss what behaviors might deny a student that sense," advises Gehley. "For example, gay and lesbian students often are harassed. Will your anti-bullying program suggest the creation of gay-straight alliances and clubs? Training for educators in supporting LGTB students?"
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)