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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Research Matters / Positive Culture in Urban Schools

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Urban schools often face such challenges as high student poverty and mobility rates, large numbers of English language learners, and unsafe neighborhoods. Yet even in the face of these challenges, many urban schools provide a high-quality education and produce high-achieving students. Research has identified three ways in which successful urban schools support positive behavior and learning.

What We Know

In the culture of a school, caring connections, positive behavioral supports, and social and emotional learning are essential.
Caring connections. School-based research and national survey data document the importance of connectedness (McNeely, Nonnemaker, & Blum, 2002). Students who believe that their teachers care about them perform better on tests (Ryan & Patrick, 2001). Students who have strong connections with both teachers and prosocial peers are more likely to resist the pull of gangs that offer an alternative form of connection for alienated students (Goldstein & Soriano, 1994).
Positive behavioral supports. Research suggests that harsh discipline works against connection; instead of reducing misbehavior and vandalism, such discipline actually promotes these problems (McNeely et al., 2002). Punitive approaches also hinder achievement. When students are being punished, isolated, or suspended, they are not learning. Behavioral research suggests that environmental changes—for example, being explicit about behavioral expectations, directly teaching appropriate behavior, providing support to help students meet expectations, monitoring individual and schoolwide behavior, and providing frequent positive reinforcement—can reduce discipline problems and help teachers and students recover instructional time (Sugai et al., 2000).
Social and emotional skills. Successful urban schools also nurture the internal assets that help students regulate their own behavior and deal with the many social and academic challenges they face. Teaching students social and emotional skills—such as relationship building, self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision making—can prevent problem behavior and promote academic success. Students who develop these skills are less likely to participate in high-risk behavior and are more able to persevere through academic challenges (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000).
These three crucial factors are interdependent (Osher, Dwyer, & Jackson, 2004). For example, students who have strong and healthy connections to teachers are better prepared to learn social and emotional skills, and teachers who model good social and emotional skills can more easily connect with students. This is particularly true when there are cultural differences between students and school staff members.

What You Can Do

Successful urban schools support connection by reaching out to students and families in a caring and respectful manner. In such schools, you will see the principal standing outside the school to welcome students and parents each morning and teachers collaborating to ensure that all students have an adult who advocates for them and cares about them.
To promote positive discipline, urban schools need to be clear about expectations, state them positively, post them visibly, train students to meet these expectations, and recognize students when they do (Designs for Change, 2003). Teachers should intervene early to prevent small conflicts from becoming problematic events and use infractions as an opportunity to teach rather than to punish.
Schools can also improve schoolwide discipline by collecting and using data to develop and monitor individual, class, and school interventions. Such data can help school staff identify aspects of the school's environment that should be changed to prevent problem behaviors. For example, school teams can look at data on disciplinary infractions to determine common times and locations of the most frequent problems, analyze the causes, and develop strategies to deal with those infractions (Sugai et al., 2000).
Approaches that successfully promote social and emotional learning include demonstration (for example, role playing), direct instruction, modeling, practice, coaching, and support for generalizing the skills to new settings. These strategies are most powerful when implemented schoolwide so that all staff can coach and reinforce the skills that students are learning (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2003).

Educators Take Note

The underlying goal of creating a positive schoolwide culture is, of course, to enable urban students to achieve academically. Studies of urban schools find that economically disadvantaged students of color perform better when teachers match high expectations with warm and safe environments and social support (Lee, Smith, Perry, & Smylie, 1999). Thus, to achieve their goal of raising student achievement, urban schools must integrate the supportive strategies discussed here with a challenging curriculum, high standards, and effective instructional practices.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2003). Safe and sound. Chicago: Author.

Designs for Change. (2003). Rachel Carson Elementary School: An exemplary urban school that teaches children to read. Chicago: Author.

Goldstein, A. P., & Soriano, F. I. (1994). Juvenile gangs. In L. D. Eron, J. H. Gentry, & P. Schlegel (Eds.), Reason to hope (pp. 315–333). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Lee, V. E., Smith, J. B., Perry, T. E., & Smylie, A. (1999). Social support, academic press, and student achievement. Chicago: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

McNeely, C. A., Nonnemaker, J. M., & Blum, R. W. (2002). Promoting school connectedness. Journal of School Health, 72(4), 138–146.

Osher, D., Dwyer, K., & Jackson, S. (2004). Safe, supportive and successful schools step by step. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Ryan, A. M., & Patrick, H. (2001). The classroom social environment and changes in adolescents' motivation and engagement during middle school. American Educational Research Journal, 38, 437–460.

Solomon, D., Battistich, V., Watson, M., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C. (2000). A six-district study of educational change. Social Psychology of Education, 4, 3–51.

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., Dunlap, G., Hieneman, M., Lewis, T. J., Nelson, C. M., et al. (2000). Applying positive behavioral support and functional behavioral assessment in schools. Journal of Positive Behavioral Interventions, 2, 131–143.

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