November 20, 2017

Our Vision is Clear: School Climate and Culture Takes a Community

LaTanya Waters

As a teacher on the South Side of Chicago for 11 years, school climate and culture and the direct impact it has on my students’ wellbeing and educational attainment is always at the top of my mind. That’s why my school celebrated Illinois’ new accountability plan that emphasizes improving school climate and has the potential to direct new, critical resources to my students. But that is only part of the solution.  I know when it comes to my school’s climate and culture, it must be built by the educators, students, families, and neighbors in my school community. 

I learned the importance of healthy school climate and culture through my experiences as an educator. But we all know that schools are not airtight. What happens outside of school often influences the behaviors and attitudes of my students and, ultimately, the climate and culture of our building. I have little control over this harsh reality. My students regularly experience violence, poverty, and problems at home. And the trauma from these experiences weigh on their minds during school, impeding their work and hurting  our school’s learning environment. 

Through no fault of their own, the effects of one student’s trauma can ripple throughout our schools and harm climate and culture. 

I think of my former student, Jon, whose family struggled to give him the attention he needed while also supporting his brother, who required extra care as a student with special needs. Jon internalized this struggle at home and came to my classroom believing his needs didn’t matter. He cared little about himself and his learning, and as a consequence often disrupted his classes. Jon’s lack of parental support and the negative mindset it caused not only resulted in his failing sixth grade, but also undermined the classroom cultures my colleagues and I aimed to create and interrupted precious learning opportunities for his peers. 

After Jon was held back a year, those closest to him in the school united and aligned on how to get him back on track. A community organization called Becoming A Man paired Jon with an after school mentor. The school’s security guard took Jon under his wing to keep him out of trouble through our Adopt A Middle Schooler program. His teachers, including myself,  had multiple one-on-one conversations with him about the sobering reality of becoming another statistic. This continued support from the school encouraged Jon to turn his performance around. He started caring about his grades to the point that, by this past May, he showed the most growth on the NWEA test for Reading. 

Jon is just one example of our school community coming together because we know how much school climate and culture impacts our students. But just as the old adage says, “it takes a village to raise a child,” it takes more than school staff and students to invest in a school’s climate and culture. Parents, clergy, community organizations, neighborhood stakeholders, and so many others come in contact with today’s youth for several reasons.

And so it is crucial for everyone in a school’s community to collaborate and help provide necessary supports so that all students can excel. 

 

When I think about Jon, I ask myself: What if his family was more supportive, what if other school supports, like after school tutoring or additional counseling services, were available--would it have taken as long to turn him around? Could we have added another critical year or two to his learning and development?

School climate is now a state-identified priority. And just like our state came together to develop its accountability plan, our communities can come together to create and execute on a school climate and culture plan through local problem-solving forums. We all need these forums to shed light on matters affecting our youth, collaboratively create tangible solutions, and above all, align as an entire community on a common vision. Forums are a way to cultivate our vision and provide concrete steps to work as a whole community to get there. The good news is that we’ve started this important work. 

On November eighth and ninth, Educators for Excellence-Chicago, a teacher-led organization I am proud to work with, hosted four problem-solving forums across the city. These forums were a critical first step toward uniting schools, families, and community organizations to provide Chicago’s students with the resources and supports they need. I urge Chicago Public Schools leaders to continue collaborating with us to create these spaces.

When we all work together, we can provide our children an excellent education in a safe and supportive environment

LaTanya Waters

LaTanya A. Waters teaches science on the the South side of Chicago. She has been an educator for 20 years, teaching within Chicago Public Schools for 11 years.