It’s more than a buzzword: A school’s climate shapes and informs daily experiences for students, educators, staff, administrators, and visitors.
School climate refers to a school’s social, physical, and academic environment. How does it make people feel? Safe? Welcomed? Connected?
It’s important that students feel comfortable and able to learn, and educators feel respected and able to do their job. When a student knows that his or her teacher cares—not only about academic success, but also about personal well-being—the student will gain a higher sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When an educator feels like a valuable contributor to the team, he or she will be eager to put forth the best effort.
Hear about the difference a positive school climate makes from two National Schools of Character administrators.
Students at Northview High School in Florissant, MO Don’t Have to Fit In… The School Fits Them
We are a full special education school with a committed staff and lots of school pride Students come to us who have not been successful in traditional environments, and don’t leave us because they have the supports they need and are loved and accepted. We have celebrations all day everyday.
With support from the National Association of Elementary School Principals, researchers have identified three dimensions of school climate.
The physical dimension of school climate includes:
- Appearance of the school building and its classrooms;
- School size and ratio of students to teachers in the classroom;
- Order and organization of classrooms in the school;
- Availability of resources; and
- Safety and comfort.
The social dimension of school climate includes:
- Quality of interpersonal relationships between and among students, teachers, and staff;
- Equitable and fair treatment of students by teachers and staff;
- Degree of competition and social comparison between students; and
- Degree to which students, teachers, and staff contribute to decision-making at the school.
The academic dimension of school climate includes:
- Quality of instruction;
- Teacher expectations for student achievement; and
- Monitoring student progress and promptly reporting results to students and parents.
A school’s climate is the school community’s dynamic — how everyone fits and works together. When a school is a positive place to be, people are happy to be there, to do their best, and to make their best better. Everyone from the principal to the pre-schoolers knows what is expected.
Improving Your School Climate
Some effective ways to improve your school climate include the following:
- creating a caring community,
- providing students with opportunities for moral action,
- fostering self-motivation,
- engaging staff as a learning community, and
- engaging families and community members as partners.
These are some of the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education, and they make a big difference!
Full bullying prevention issue of Excellence & Ethics, published by the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, is the education letter of the Smart & Good Schools Project.
Included in this issue: Respect & Responsibility School Culture Survey
The National School Climate Center (NSCC)
One of our partner organizations, the National School Climate Center (NSCC), headed by Dr. Jonathan Cohen, has some valuable resources for educators looking to improve their school climate. Dr. Cohen serves on Character.org’s Education Advisory Council.
- Learn about the NSCC’s School Climate Improvement Road Map.
- NCSS also offers a Cultivating Caring Learning Communities Toolkit that is stocked with lesson plans and practical tips that address specific issues such as bullying, physical violence, and disrespectful behavior.
- Administrators attempting to measure school’s effectiveness must focus on academics in partnership with social, emotional, ethical, and civic education. School reform must reflect state, district, and national policies in order for it to be meaningful and sustained. Learn about School Climate Guidelines for District Leaders (superintendents and school board leaders)
- Another leading education group, ASCD worked with Dr. Jonathan Cohen, Terry Pickeral, and Molly McCloskey to address the challenge of assessing school climate.
“Character Education, Prevention, and Positive Youth Development” is another valuable resource from Dr. Victor Battistich.
In July 2015, The White House held a convening, Rethinking School Discipline.
The #RethinkDiscipline campaign offers a informative resource that will help you engage in this process: Addressing the Root Causes of Disparities in School Discipline: An Educator’s Action Planning Guide.
You can also watch the entire Rethinking School Discipline convening online.
CASE STUDY: School climate is central to student success in a St. Louis suburb.
Kehrs Mill Elementary School
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“These kids just love to work,” reflects Margaret Lucero, the affable principal of Kehrs Mill Elementary School, which is ranked third out of 1,052 elementary schools in the state of Missouri for academic achievement. Assistant Principal Sarah Turpin adds that in addition to “high academic achievement,” Kehrs Mill wants its students to show “kind behavior toward one another.” Spend one day at this newly refurbished school in a St. Louis suburb, and you will see just how it shapes students to be both “smart and good.”
No mindless drill here, student engagement is a priority. And Kehrs Mill students not only pursue their own learning with gusto but also show a deep commitment to others. Whether it is second graders involved in a brainstorming session on ways to save the rain forest, or first graders and their fourth-grade buddies planning strategies to help animals rescued by the Humane Society, critical thinking and collaborative problem solving join to strengthen the curriculum. Students are as ingenious as their teachers in finding ways to make learning engaging. At the conclusion of Harcourt reading units, for example, the cross-grade buddies showcase their reading and dramatic skills by performing skits from the texts for one another.
The caring extends beyond the district, too. Currently, 38 students from inner city St. Louis attend Kehrs Mill through the city’s Voluntary Transfer program that brings inner city students to suburban schools. The school works hard to make sure they feel welcome and included, through the Lighthouse program of adult mentors, the TEAM program that helps at-risk students, the inter-grade-level buddy system, and before-school tutoring. While many schools in the St. Louis area have stopped participating, Lucero points out that “parents here want the diversity,” and district data demonstrate that these inner city students do better at Kehrs Mill than at other schools in the district.
“A Place You Never Feel Left Out”
When asked to describe Kehrs Mill, Haley, a fifth-grade student leader, replies, “Caring, a place you never feel left out.” Students, staff, and students agree with Haley’s description. Fifth grader Caroline explains the school’s welcoming spirit: “We show new students around and become friends with them.” Parent Tracy Tunis reflects, “My children are learning positive student behavior, responsibility, honesty, perseverance, and respect for others. The staff, as well as the students, teach and model these positive student values.”
“Central to the success of our students is the constant strengthening of our school climate. We will analyze our data such as climate surveys and [Caring School Community] voice surveys. We will create action plans within our school plan to further enhance components of our character education program which will give students the skills needed to be productive citizens.”
—Margaret Lucero, Principal