By Shawn Healy, Civic Learning & Engagement Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation
A positive school climate is essential to a school living its civic mission. I’m admittedly a novice when it comes to school climate, but when I arrived in New York last July to attend the National School Climate Institute’s 2012 Summer Institute, I knew this much, and believed it deeply in my heart.
My expertise lies in civic education and engagement. I taught high school social studies for six years, am a PhD candidate in the field of political socialization, and chair the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, which advocates for school-based civic learning opportunities across the formal curriculum, in extracurricular activities, and through day-to-day school governance.
My combined experiences in the classroom, as an academic, and as an advocate, taught me that a challenging curriculum incorporating proven civic learning practices is alone insufficient in preparing young people for their roles in our representative democracy. Principals must be a driving force for a school’s civic mission, with specific attention to staff development, from hiring to evaluation to professional development. Schools must also build reciprocal relationships with the surrounding community, where both are resources for one another.
A positive school climate is the glue that holds this all together. I developed a new and ongoing appreciation for this bonding agent during my experiences at the 2012 Summer Institute.
Simply stated, a school’s climate either reinforces or undermines democratic lessons that occur in its classrooms. Schools with positive climates practice democracy through constant attention to relationships among and between administrators, faculty and staff, students, parents, and other community stakeholders. They support civic norms and values through policy and practice, and students graduate with a sense of responsibility and efficacy.
I learned there are many entry points to school climate. Attention to school climate is a powerful prescription for bullying prevention, and an important vehicle for elevating youth voice. Some see it as a means of improving student achievement, and others as a way of better including and celebrating the gifts of special needs students. Similarly, issues of equity among all students rise to the fore, with important implications for my own work in the civic learning space.
The Summer Institute experience broadened my understanding of the scope of school climate work, and allowed me to think about how I can integrate it into my own daily dealings. Upon returning to Chicago, we matched a high school in our Democracy Schools Network with the NSCC for a staff training and introduction to school climate measurement tools. It is our hope that this pilot project will set the stage for further work with other schools throughout Illinois.
We’ve also integrated school climate into our revised Illinois Civic Blueprint (publication pending, with the original document accessible here), which offers a scalable approach to school-based civic learning statewide. School climate has even entered the assessment and application tools we use with prospective Democracy Schools to strengthen their civic learning programs.
I’ll be back in Chelsea in July for the 2013 Summer Institute with a team representing the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition I chair, including a regional superintendent of schools, a coordinator of student leadership and service-learning from a large urban school district, and two classroom teachers. Collectively, we hope to expand our working knowledge of school climate reform, network and learn from fellow advocates across the country, and strategize about how we can implement model school climate policies and processes across multiple layers of the educational landscape in Illinois.
Last year’s Summer Institute experience helped me operationalize my deeply held belief that a school’s attention to building and maintaining a positive climate is in service of its civic mission. I’m confident that the 2013 experience will have a similar galvanizing effect for new and repeat attendees alike, and I truly look forward to learning about your own entry point into the growing movement for school climate reform.
Shawn Healy and the McCormick Foundation can be found on Twitter @McCormick_Fdn.
NSCC introduces its first blog in a series of Summer Institute posts highlighting participant and presenter experiences. Stay connected to us weekly for a unique perspective of Summer Institute offerings, teachings, and benefits.