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School Climate is Especially Challenging Right Now
A broken school climate can disrupt good teaching and derail student and staff attendance -- we need to work extra hard this year to get it right.
School climate is a term that captures student behavior, attendance, and perceptions of safety inside a school building. It’s a hot topic right now in Philadelphia, mostly because of violence occurring around schools. But it’s also a challenge inside schools.
We often look at a few basic metrics to get a snapshot of climate: the percentage of students whose attendance is 95% or above and the percentage of students who have not been suspended. With just one month’s worth of data, we’ve already suspended more students this September than we did in the last fully in-person September way back in 2019. And student attendance is way down. And fewer than half our students are attending school regularly. That’s concerning. We’re doing a lot to make sure students feel safe this year. But creating a safe learning environment in Philadelphia schools is always a challenge.
After 17 years in education, I’ve honed my sixth sense — something many educators have — of knowing when something isn’t right among my students. I typically walk around the neighborhood at dismissal to help squash any physical altercations. As I walk around the rowhome-lined area that surround my school, I’ll shout at students to get out of the streets and be mindful of our neighbors’ property. I’ll pick up the black plastic bags that roll through the streets like tumbleweed (they make good dog poop bags). I’ll pass by the bodega, joke with students about buying me a bag of Takis. And on an unseasonably warm Friday in January 2020, I sensed something was wrong during dismissal.
I followed a group of middle schoolers, watching them frantically checking their phones. They talked nervously and ignored me. Some turned to walk the opposite way they normally walked. Another group walked down one block, doubled back, and walked down the same block. And then I talked with a student from a neighboring middle school who said she came by to “see her friend.” I knew something was wrong. I texted my dean and safety officer my location in the neighborhood and they walked towards me.
For a few weeks prior, my climate team — the two counselors, dean of students, and school safety officer — and I had been working through an ongoing dispute with a dozen female middle school students. The dispute started at a birthday party outside of school, when a few students felt slighted by not receiving an invitation. It spiraled into social media posts harassing each other, sly looks in the hallway in between classes, and the occasional verbal argument in class, the cafeteria, or at recess.
We mediated restorative meetings between some of the students involved. We called parents and met with them. We sat in on classes. We provided alternative settings for recess and lunch. We had the students work on collaborative projects and play games together. We even hosted a large restorative circle meeting with every student and parent involved. It was several hours of work for several staff members each day for weeks. We used nearly every tool at our disposal to avoid the conflict erupting into physical violence.
It took nearly four years of work to get to a place where we not only rarely suspended students, we rarely had physical violence of any sort. There were plenty of climate issues to deal with, from bullying and harassment to vandalism, but serious physical violence had subsided to an almost nonexistent level. It wasn’t always that way. In my first week on the job, I got an urgent walkie alert about girls fighting in the middle school hallway. I sprinted out of my office, up the stairs, and peeled the two girls off each other. Clumps of hair lay in the hall as I separated them, all parties breathing heavily and looking exhausted. In my first year as principal, I reluctantly suspended 89 students — almost 15% of the school population. There were days entirely spent on dealing with discipline issues.
When I first started, my climate team was just myself, a counselor, and 5 part-time staff who supported lunch and recess. I got no training on district-wide climate systems because school climate is largely left up to principals. And there were no climate systems or procedures: teachers would write a pink slip for a serious incident, and that office referral always came to my desk for a consequence. But there were no consequences set up. No one to run a restorative meeting, no after-school detentions or community services options. With fights happening regularly, suspensions were the easiest way to raise expectations for the safe learning environment we needed. I still struggle with that decision.
All the climate work left little time to be the instructional leader I had been groomed to be. It left little time for much of anything but climate response during the school day, leading to late nights to catch up on all the other administrative work. I had to do something. In looking at my budget, I had a vacant position for which there were no prospective candidates. I eliminated it and used the funds to promote one of the part-time staff to a full-time role. That was the first game-changer. She used the three additional hours and her longstanding relationship with families to handle most of the major incidents. In my second year, I hired a teacher to work on discipline full-time during my second year: game-changer number two. She helped design and launch our PBIS program, allowing us to better track and incentivize all the good behavior that happened each day. In my third year, I was able to hire a second counselor. Collectively, we began to shift from a reactive climate culture — triaging incidents as they happened — to a proactive one that built strong relationships between students and staff and families.
Still, Philadelphia has an epidemic of violence that permeates our culture. In 2019, the city experienced 356 murders, the highest level it had seen since 2007. This year we’ve seen 450 of our neighbors succumb to violence. As a resident of the city, the violence can feel inevitable. The police sirens almost become binaural background noise, and I worry that violent culture begins in our schools.
As I walked down the block alongside one of our middle school students on that Friday in January of 2020, it felt inevitable. Another student bumped into her and in a flash, even though I tried to immediately intervene, they were fighting. The fighting would last nearly 45 minutes. It seemed like each time I broke up one fight, another would start. Cars diverted to other streets. Neighbors watched from their lawns. A few cars drove up to the scene, and some adults got out and began fighting. The police arrived, broke up the fights and left. A few minutes later when more fights erupted, I called 911 again and police returned.
It took two weeks of watching videos and interviewing witnesses to piece together the events and move forward with discipline. Then several more weeks of disciplinary hearings, emotionally-charged parent conferences, and calls from local officials advocating on behalf on some students involved to administer all the consequences. Eventually we regained a sense of safety within the building. And then the pandemic hit.
The proactive climate systems we built to create a safe learning environment were put on the shelf for 18 months, rendered unnecessary in the virtual world. And community circle time continues to get crowded out by other initiatives, especially instructional priorities. The increased police presence around schools the city announced today is a temporary measure. The long-term solution is to stop that cycle of violence, and that starts in our schools. The tit for tat, eye for an eye cycle is a difficult one to break. And it feels even more challenging this year.