1703 North Beauregard St.
Alexandria, VA 22311-1714
Tel: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday
Local to the D.C. area: 1-703-578-9600
Toll-free from U.S. and Canada: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
All other countries: (International Access Code) + 1-703-578-9600
March 9, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 13
Table of Contents
Field Notes: What My Worst First Day Taught Me
As a new assistant principal starting my first assignment, this past September, I was very optimistic about how I would influence my school's climate, culture, and student achievement. I knew these three were inextricably linked. School climate refers to the schools' effect on relationships between students, teachers, administrators, and families. Instructional practices and approaches to diversity influence school climate. School culture refers to the set of beliefs, values, and expectations shared among students, teachers, administrators, and families. Without strong relationships, inclusive practices, and shared belief in the success of each student, I knew student achievement gains would be elusive. That's why assessing the school climate and culture at my new school was among my top priorities.
I had done some research on my school, looking at data on student achievement, behavior indicators (such as suspension and office referral rates), and student and staff surveys on school satisfaction. I discovered that climate and culture at the school were suffering. I was coming on as part of a completely new administrative team, and staff members were uneasy about this shift. There was tension between student groups and even some families, as well. These challenges were reflected in a significant drop on the staff and student satisfaction survey. But numbers do not tell the whole story of a school, and that was especially true because there were gaps in my new school's behavior data. There was no way to know what I was truly walking into.
On the first day of school, as students entered the building, a fight broke out between two students in the front lobby. The scuffle seemed to set off a chain reaction, and several other fights soon followed. There were 15 separate physical altercations on that first day. I was determined to address the matter. After meeting the staff, I learned that, in the past three years, the school had absorbed students from two neighborhood schools that had been closed. When these schools merged into one, it not only significantly increased the school population, it also forced families from rival neighborhoods, where gang violence and territorial feuds were not uncommon, to share turf. There were multiple fights, daily. School relationships were strained, and many students did not feel safe.
Many students adopted a survival mentality that required them to be very tough, defensive, and prepared to fight at all times. Perceiving a new administrative team as a threat, many teachers felt that they had to always be on guard, as well. This spiraled into a great deal of staff turnover and absenteeism among teachers during that first year. Staff vacancies left already vulnerable students feeling abandoned. Not surprisingly, student achievement was being dragged down with the culture and climate tailspin. Assessment data showed students underachieving in both math and literacy.
Numerous studies have shown the connection between school culture and climate, and student achievement. If a school is underperforming academically and also has a poor school culture and climate, it is essential that the culture and climate are addressed before academics can truly be affected. Think of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs—if a students' basic needs such as safety and belonging are not met, then it is highly unlikely that a school will be able to demonstrate any significant student-achievement growth. As part of a new administrative team tasked to turn around this D.C. elementary school, I knew that establishing a positive school climate and culture was crucial to improving student achievement.
Shifting Climate and Culture
I began meeting with teachers, by grade levels, to identify areas of concern. I met with students to gain their input on any school changes they would like implemented. Changing school culture and climate takes time, but by taking actions to address some immediate staff and student concerns, the administration began to develop more positive relationships. Student behavior was a major area of concern, so we collaborated with students and staff to establish a structured schoolwide discipline program. It was led by a behavior-management team, supported by two newly hired behavior techs, featured a clear ladder of behavior interventions, and offered a restructured in-school suspension program that included reflection activities, 1-on-1 and group conferences with the mental health team, and academic support from instructional staff.
The executive team realized that the thought process for addressing behavior also had to be adjusted, too. We adopted and trained all staff in Restorative Justice, a program that seeks to reconcile harm through community support and accountability. This was a change from previous punitive methods like yelling at students or suspending the. The emphasis now would be on creating a sense of community and reflection among our staff and students. Teachers were trained to model positive language and interactions with students, staff, and parents. Circle discussions are a key tenet of restorative justice, and we adapted this technique to the beginning and ending of each school day to build relationships and a sense of community.
Students and staff began to feel that their voices were heard and valued. The school was departmentalized from the 1st to 5th grades, which allowed teachers to focus on specific content areas aligned with their instructional strengths. Additionally, the school day schedule was modified to ensure that teachers could have collaborative planning by content and by grade level at least two days per week. Teachers had instructional team meetings and school culture team meetings weekly. There was a clear, schoolwide, restorative discipline policy developed with input from both teachers and students. Behavior expectations were clear and uniform in all areas of the school—from hallway transitions, the cafeteria, and assemblies, to the bathroom and buses. We created posters and changed the school motto to reflect these expectations. Staff schedules were modified to allow teachers time to monitor and interact with students during lunch and recess using structured games and activities to foster more positive relationships. All staff are on hand at arrivals to greet each student and during dismissals to support successful departures.
Schoolwide culture and climate change also requires support from parents and families. To this end, we partnered with the Flamboyan Foundation to help train our staff on home visits so that we could begin visiting with each family. At our quarterly Academic Parent-Teacher Teams (APTT) events, parents are invited to the school to learn methods for supporting their child's academic growth. Throughout the year, we use a variety of methods for connecting with parents as partners in improving school climate and culture: Back to School Night, Donuts with Dads, Muffins for Mom, Monthly Chat-N-Chews, Math & Literacy Nights, the State of the School address, and a monthly newsletter. In our male outreach program, every male staff member serves as a mentor to our young male students, with a focus on behavior and academics. The male outreach program also hosts events, like barbecues and staff vs. dads basketball games, encouraging fathers and influential male figures to become more active in students' academics. Finally, we've added regular celebrations for staff and student achievement. We now recognize a staff member and student of the month, and hold quarterly academic celebrations for our students demonstrating academic growth.
So far, this year, our ongoing commitment to improving school culture and climate has paid off in reduced suspensions and fights, while staff and student morale has risen. Classes are more manageable, and both teachers and students are able to do their best work. From that contentious first day, the message has been clear: culture and climate matter! It takes time, but tending to culture and climate first will have positive effects that ripple throughout the entire school community.
Haroon Rashed is the assistant principal at Neval Thomas Elementary School in Washington, D.C.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 13. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
Subscribe to ASCD Express, our free e-mail newsletter, to have practical, actionable strategies and information delivered to your e-mail inbox twice a month.
ASCD respects intellectual property rights and adheres to the laws governing them. Learn more about our permissions policy and submit your request online.