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September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

A Place to Hang Our Hats

Every child deserves a school that is inviting, academically challenging, and safe. The overall ambiance of the school and the quality of instruction are enhanced as the school develops a "concordant relationship" among the students, parents, teachers, and administrators who make up the school setting and "with those members of the general community who support the school setting." The staff, student body, and community are eager to share in the activities of a school within whose walls they feel at home. An overall climate in which all feel comfortable leads to a productive learning environment that has a positive impact on the achievement of the students.
At Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School in Hyattsville, Maryland, the physical setting of the school is as important to a positive climate as the attitudes and behavior of the staff and faculty are. Our school of 650 children is situated in a high-poverty, crime-ridden metropolitan area. Every day, students on their way to school pass drug dealers and their infamous trappings. The attractiveness of the school is a prime necessity.

An Inviting Exterior, a Cheerful Interior

A clean exterior complemented by pruned bushes, flower-filled window boxes, and a student-tended garden greets visitors to Langley Park-McCormick. At the school's entrance, the principal's bilingual "Welcome" sign heightens the sense of warmth. The sign informs everyone entering the school about the expected protocol without resorting to the cold, alienating "Notice!" often found on such signs.
As students enter the building, they immediately see an abundance of multicultural materials that pleasantly saturate the school's hallways. Multicultural presentations throughout the school assure our students (who come from 40 countries) that they are welcomed and wanted at Langley Park-McCormick. On our walls, we proudly feature photographs of our jewels—the children. These displays create a familial environment that allows the students to feel that they are at their home away from home.
This welcoming trend continues as the students enter their classrooms. Students' tasks are not scattered around the room, teachers' desks are not alienated from the rest of the class, and the walls are far from dull. Instead, students are grouped to improve relationships, teachers' desks are near those of students to increase the security of belonging, and the students' accomplishments on the decorated walls heighten their sense of achievement. The warmth of the school is as important in the classroom as it is at the front door of the school. We believe that children must feel safe and acquire a sense of belonging before learning can occur.

Positive Development Through Looping

Enhancing a climate that fosters the development of the whole child continues to be a challenge for educators. For the past four years, our "family" at Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School has adopted a highly successful looping practice. Teachers stay with their students for three years, from 4th through 6th grades.
Looping has been a definite asset for addressing the students' behavioral and social development. Because the children anticipate that they will be together for three years, they begin in 4th grade to bond and to develop the concept of "family pride." Students initiate friendships and internalize cooperative learning strategies over these years.
Our teachers send postcards to their returning students just before school begins, welcoming them as family to another year together. It is no wonder, then, that students and teachers are pleased to return in September of the second and third years to a class free from the typical beginning-of-the-year jitters and frustrations. The children know what is expected of them, and the teachers know their students' levels of achievement as well as their strengths and weaknesses. The beginning of the year runs smoothly and is less stressful. During September, teachers can concentrate on the curriculum instead of pretesting subject areas and establishing classroom routines. Our English-as-a-second-language students, who speak 21 languages, are more at ease during their second year of looping because the 1st school day in September is actually their 181st day of school. They are more confident in practicing their developing English skills and are more trusting of their teacher.
One of the most positive aspects of looping is the social growth that takes place. Over this three-year period, the children develop a strong interdependency. They know one another so well! As the years progress, the students show empathy, concern, and mutual respect for one another, all because they have blended into a cohesive team.
Another important aspect of looping is parental involvement. On the child's first day of school, the student, the parent, the teacher, and the administrator sign and begin to implement compacts for optimal learning. These written agreements formalize the active role each participant has in the child's global performance and delineate specific high standards expected of all students. Because home visits are an integral part of our program, we know our parents well. We share our school policies, classroom rules and regulations, and a family's hopes and dreams.
Over the four years we have used looping, we have seen suspensions decrease, and we boast yearly teacher attendance rates of 97 percent and student attendance rates of 97.2 percent, which are excellent by Maryland's standards. In the three years before this innovation, the student attendance rate varied between 92.6 percent and 93.9 percent. The efforts of the entire "village" have brought about these incredible gains. Teachers and students alike have been known to actually cheer when a student comes in late. How appropriate the ancient adage is: "Better late than never." What a difference over traditional methods!
Looping has created a healthy bond among our students, teachers, and parents. Working with one group of students over three years has made the task of educating our youngsters more rewarding and less demanding. Each classroom teacher has the opportunity to make a critical, sustained difference in the lives of his or her students.
At a time when schools are being urged to solve society's problems, Langley Park-McCormick Elementary School is trying to do just that. Our community outreach programs provide supportive and nurturing home, school, and community environments in which the academic and affective needs of the students are effectively addressed. These ongoing programs give our preteens the disciplined temperament and resolve they need to improve their self-esteem, attitude toward school, school attendance rate, and academic performance.
Visitors can find church services being held on Sundays and an occasional clothing distribution on a Saturday. On two nights a week, more than 550 adults fill our school building to near capacity to learn English. On Mondays and Wednesdays, our after-school program for our homeless-shelter children, "Study Buddies," is in session to provide peer tutoring, homework assistance, and friendship. Each Tuesday and Thursday, children strengthen their reading or math skills in after-school coaching sessions. Parents often drop by to take advantage of the food pantry supported by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. At least once a month during the school year, we hold a family activity, such as Family Math Night, Family Science Night, Computer Night, and International Sweets and Songs Night. Even in the summer, Langley Park-McCormick is a bustling and energetic educational site when 4th and 5th graders attend a subsidized multicultural math camp.
Our school also participates in "Partners Promoting Success," a multiagency coalition that offers health and educational services to the community. One such outreach intervention is the state governor's Wellmobile, which furnishes preventive health services to our students and their families. Because economic and cultural barriers make routine, quality health care inaccessible to many of our families, the mobile health unit is a welcome sight on our school grounds. Twice a month, the Wellmobile provides free immunizations and health screenings to our students, their parents, and their siblings.
Forming community partnerships is essential in a community outreach effort. Businesses, institutions, agencies, churches, and college partners have supported student projects and programs and our community outreach efforts. In addition, we enlist student volunteers and mentors from the Landon School, an affluent private boys' school in a Washington, D.C., suburb. This project has developed over the last five years with 18 young men spending an hour each week mentoring some of our male youngsters. What an impact a year-long commitment like this makes! As one of our 6th graders wrote in his journal,Alex is my best friend. He likes to do the same things I do and has taught me how to draw better. He even sometimes calls me to say "Hi" and remind me to be good. He thinks I can get better grades and make the honor roll. I want Alex to be proud of me. He's smart and makes me feel good.

Helping Parents Feel at Home

None of this community building happened magically. We have had to consider ways of getting to know families, enlisting their help, making the programs accessible to these families, and meeting family needs through community links. Sustaining program participation and staying attuned to parents' interests as well as students' needs are ongoing commitments.
Often, parents walk into their children's school and feel that they don't have a place to "hang their hats." One of our most important interventions has been to transform a classroom into a Parents' Room, a place where they feel welcome. Three years ago, we implemented the PAL (Parents at Langley) program with a Title 1 grant. PAL's objective is to provide a safety net for families struggling to survive in our community. Parent helpers are responsible for making attendance calls, photocopying and collating bulletins, making instructional manipulatives, and much more. This program increases positive interactions among child, parent, teacher, and administrator. Children are proud to see their parents employed at their school. Often, the parents' earnings from this program enable their family to remain not only in the neighborhood but also in our school.
In a diverse community like Langley Park, the school can serve as a link between needed resources and referral agencies. These outreach efforts add a personal touch to creating a positive school environment as we strive to achieve our goal of enabling "every student to be an effective life-long learner, productive worker, responsible citizen and thoughtful participant in our global community," as our mission statement proclaims.
End Notes

1 Witcher, A. E. (1993, September). Assessing school climate: An important step for enhancing school quality. NASSP Bulletin, 77(554), 1-5.

Patricia A. Kelly has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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