Sunday, March 27, 2011

Starting the Change Process

Last Sunday, the Hartford Courant ran a less than educational education article on Windham Public Schools titled "Windham Schools: Moving in the Wrong Directions." Clearly, the Courant felt it necessary to mislead its readers for the sake of selling papers or getting hits on the website. Though the article does express some of the realities of the school district, writer Grace Merritt chose to focus her readers on the visible effects of the many issues, but she failed to connect the dots between them. I've examined the article and found eight areas of foucs: Race, Poverty, Language, Parents, Teachers, Academics, Politics, and School Culture. Of the school culture, the Courant reports: "Teachers grumble that many students are disrespectful and roam the hallways during class... During a recent visit to both schools, some students were wandering in the hallways during class and had to be told by their principal to return to class. A couple of students yelled and cursed loudly as they passed in the hallway... During class, students often text or talk on their phones and sometimes swear at teachers." A school's culture will deteriorate when the norms of the school community are not shared by all. When student groups feel marginalized, or when students do not intereact outside of their group, a school's culture breaks down. Great schools recognize the basic need of human nature, which is to feel community. Windham's school climate issues are in line with many urban schools filled with students who have been marginalized for one reason or another. Certainly the effect, the "disrespectful" and "wandering" students, is visible and problematic. What is less visible, and less likely to get talked about are the causes. We cannot deny that the race, poverty, language, parents, teachers, and academic issues are not interrelated. To simply look at the effect and judge demonstrates a simple minded approach. But what can schools do to help alleviate the negative effects of these intermingling problems? In some ways, public schools should look to their competition for answeres; the charter school movement, and especially the successful ones, recognize that students must want to be at the school if they are to succeed at educating the student. Schools need to make a conscious effort to build their community by focusing on the norms and values they desire. Moreover, this conscious effort must be adopted by every school in the district. To expect a high school to recover the lost years in such a short amount of time demonstrates the type of simple mindedness that leads to state takeovers of schools. Here I offer three simple ways a school or district can begin changing the culture. There are many additional methods (like the Broken Window theory), but I write a blog, not a book.

1. College Attendance
Some don't believe that every student can make it to college, and that by promoting college readiness, we only set those students up for disappointment. While I recognize that not every student is Yale material, or even community college material, we must recognize that today's workforce needs more educated people. Trade schools and certification programs are now valid paths into a career. So, if we need to change the tag from "college ready" to "post-high school training" ready, then fine. Many of the successful charter schools begin promoting college from elementary school. Their hallways are named after universities, college posters hang on their walls. Teachers remind students regularly that the goal is college attendance, and then monitor student behavior always asking if a student's choice will get them into college. This year, I teach a fundamental level class. Almost all of the students read far below grade level, and many have a history of discipline and attendance issues. From the first day of school, they have heard that my job is to prepare them for college. At first many balked at the idea, claiming their track level as an indicator that they were not smart. Have I been successful keeping 100% of this sophomore class focused on learning? No. But, I have watched as even my earliest problems have morphed into more successful students. Will they pass the CAPT? No. But I predict they will have done much better on it than if I hadn't created the climate of success in my room.

2. Relationships
Just as students need to feel that we, the teachers, believe in their academic ability, and will not deviate from that belief, they also need to feel that we like them. Early in a student's career, the classroom teacher has a great ability to influence a young child. Regardless of the student's home-life, the teacher can create an environment where that child feels a sense of connection. Though the amount of time a high school teacher spends with a student is limited by the bell schedule, we still have a chance every day to make students feel accepted. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned over the course of my 8 year career is the art of complimenting. "I like those shoes" or "Hey you got a haircut" show that we notice them. Students who feel noticed, often feel connected. Students who feel connected, often feel successful. Students who feel successful, often are.

3. Autonomy and Influence
I recently walked into a local high school for an event. As I walked in, three students of various genders and ethnicities greeted me at the door. They asked which part of the event I was attending and directed me to that location while also offering to get me a cup of coffee. Throughout the building, student leaders were directing adults and interacting with them professionally and personably. At the school I taught at before coming to Connecticut, student leaders created and implemented pep assemblies, informational assemblies, dances, and whatever else they could get their hands on. The students there bought into the school because the school invested in them. The message was clear: "We believe you can..." Schools with climate issues often don't share that attitude. Their message is "We don't believe you can..." As a result, events are not offered and students aren't taught how to act or behave in professional or personable ways. As the trend continues, a divide happens. The divide causes a distrust between students and faculty. A vibrant school community has a thriving student leadership program which gives autonomy and influence to the students. As students feel trusted, they tend to continue earning that trust. As important as creating autonomous opportunities, schools like Windham, with a high number of Spanish speaking students, should go out of their way to tap into the leaders of its diverse population. Again, so much more can be written about school climate. However, these are three areas that can change immediately if people are willing.