Teach By Design
Mar 12, 2019

3 Ways to Ensure School Is a Place Everyone Wants to Be

Research tells us nearly every aspect of school life improves when you make school the kind of place where everyone wants to be. What does "positive school climate" mean? How do you measure it? What mistakes can we avoid in order to keep the good stuff going?

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Editor's Note: Whenever we talk about PBIS, we talk about implementation. We can't talk about implementation without talking about fidelity. So, what is implementation? How do we know when we're doing it right? How can we do it better? This is the third article in our series exploring the basics of implementation and how to assess your own to get the outcomes you want to see. Check out the first article exploring seven keys to every implementation here, and the second article about using the TFI as your school's primary fidelity survey here.

Imagine your district’s name appears in both The New York Times and ProPublica. On that day, an audience of more than 3 million people have access to a story all about a program you offer and the students enrolled in it. Now, imagine the headline reads:

“You Are Still Black”: Charlottesville’s Racial Divide Hinders Students”

On October 16, 2018, that’s just what happened to Charlottesville City Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Two high school seniors, Zyahna Bryant and Trinity Hughes, courageously told their stories as an example of the disparities so many students of color have experienced in Charlottesville City Schools. Over the course of almost 4,000 words, journalists Erica L. Green and Annie Waldman, detail how Charlottesville’s segregated past continues to affect its current students. We read about how white students are four times more likely to be enrolled in Quest – the district’s gifted program - than their black peers. We find out how black students are four times more likely to be held back and five times more likely to be suspended from school. When they tell you all the ways the school board tried to keep black students out of predominantly white schools, it’s upsetting. When you hear Trinity’s mother describe how these policies eventually made them “give up fighting” or another parent describe how “there have been a lot of people who just don’t believe in the potential of our kids,” it’s devastating.

Now imagine you are a student living this experience, or a parent supporting your kid, or you work at one of Charlottesville’s schools, or you’re a community member finding out how deeply these issues run. The article opens a window into the environment where you teach and learn every day…and now the world sees it, too. Faced with a mountain of questions from every stakeholder in the district, and a simmering crowd just waiting to explode, Charlottesville City School District Superintendent Rosa Atkins got to work figuring out how to create the kind of school system where everyone succeeds instead of just some. Here is what she did:

  • First, she immediately issued an open letter on the district website promising to spend more time listening as well as what steps she was going to take in the short term so everyone could share their perspective.
  • On October 23, the district held its first community forum.
  • A survey went out so every family could anonymously add their voice to the collective.  
  • By the end of November, after the second community forum, they had a list of 10 areas identified by the greater Charlottesville community for improvement.
  • By February, they had a budget for the upcoming school year including seven specific actions the district will take to improve equity.

Watching the way Charlottesville City Schools responded is an example of how one district chose to address not just the issue of equity, but also to improve the overall school climate district-wide.

When it comes to academics, researchers found a positive school climate not only contributes to “immediate student achievement, but its effect seems to persist for years.”

What is School Climate

The National School Climate Center (NSCC) defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life.” It’s the way a building feels when you walk into it. It’s the way students talk to each other. It’s the way adults support each other and the way they work with kids. When a school has a positive school climate, everyone feels engaged, respected and safe; everyone succeeds. I imagine it’s a school either led by or full of people just like Rita Pierson.

Rita knows half the battle of getting her students to engage in class is to build a relationship with each one. She knows for a school to say it’s committed to creating a positive climate, it needs to be the kind of place where the adults seek to understand as opposed to being understood. It’s the kind of place where students earn a plus-2 instead of a minus-18 and everyone has a champion.

In 2013, researchers reviewed 206 studies and literature reviews all about school climate[1]. They found when a school has a positive climate nearly everything improves. Schools experience, among other things:

  • Lower rates of drug use
  • Lower rates of absenteeism and suspension
  • Fewer accounts of violence, aggression, sexual harassment, and bullying
  • Greater student willingness to seek help if they are bullied
  • Lower rates of student depression
  • More accounts of student’s having a positive perception of themselves
  • Less teacher emotional exhaustion
  • Increased teacher retention rates

When it comes to academics, researchers found a positive school climate not only contributes to “immediate student achievement, but its effect seems to persist for years.” For all of these reasons, schools that measure school climate and keep their finger on the pulse of perceptions and experiences, give themselves a leg up on affecting the positive outcomes they’re looking to create.

Measuring School Climate

The Technical Assistance Center (TA Center) on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports encourages all schools to measure school climate annually using the School Climate Survey (SCS). The SCS is a suite of surveys measuring student, staff, and family perceptions of school climate. The student surveys are short – between nine and 11 questions depending on the grade level. Staff and family surveys are slightly longer and ask respondents about aspects of school falling into one of five or six subscales.  

  • Teaching and Learning
  • School Safety
  • Interpersonal Relationships
  • Institutional Environment
  • Parent Involvement
  • Staff Connectedness (subscale on the staff survey)

The first four subscales – teaching and learning, school safety, interpersonal relationships, and institutional environment – are the same subscales the NSCC and the US Department of Education recommend schools regularly assess to get a sense of the overall climate in their buildings. Armed with this information, some schools may find they have some things to celebrate, and others needing to change.

Check Out the SCS Manual

Dr. Ebony N. Bridwell-Mitchell is an Associate Professor of Education in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She's an expert in the fields of leadership, management, and the ways they intersect with education. In her research on organization management, I came across an article she co-authored that introduced me to the term “organizational identity crafting”. An organization’s identity answers the question, “Who are we as an organization?” It’s a compilation of the group’s norms, values, and beliefs. Sounds a little like a school’s expectations, climate, and culture. If an organization can craft its identity, a school can certainly craft its climate. As you work to create and improve upon your school’s overall climate, pay close attention to the three ways Dr. Bridwell-Mitchell and her colleague say your best laid plans may start to fall apart.[2]

Pitfall #1: When People Value Their Profession Over the Organization

GIF of Loki staring into the distance saying "I'm burdened with a glorious purpose."

Are you proud to call yourself a teacher? You should be. There’s responsibility, value, and respect in the job. It’s also important to remember you are one person in a collective charged with creating a whole environment where every student feels seen and welcome.

Solution: Define a Shared Vision

There are many ways to start in on creating a positive school climate as a group. The folks over at School-wide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) offer some guidance. One of the steps is to create a shared vision and a set of values for your building. You could assign the task to your leadership team or even your school-wide behavior team to come up with these things. However, when you take on the task as a group, you get the benefit of a wider range of perspectives. You reinforce the idea that these values and norms represent the whole school, not just leadership’s vision.

At the end of the day, this vision becomes the foundation upon which everything builds. You can still be proud to be a teacher, and also find value in being part of your school.

Pitfall #2: When Leaders Don’t Walk the Walk

GIF of Marge Simpson saying "You're setting a bad example for the children."

Once you have shared norms, values, and beliefs, it’s important for leaders in the building to become a physical manifestation of that culture and climate. If leadership values are really different from staff values, whenever they make a claim, teachers aren’t likely to take it seriously. Sort of like how I probably shouldn’t lecture my kids about eating more vegetables if I’m holding a box of cookies while I’m doing it. Maintaining the climate you set out to create means having people in leadership who embody those goals.

Solution: Be an Example

There’s a part in the movie Reality Bites where Winona Ryder’s character, is asked to define “irony” on the spot. She never comes up with a definition. Instead she says, “Well, I can’t really define irony, but I know it when I see it!” Maybe this is how you feel about the term ‘positive school climate’. It’s difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. The TA Center has you covered. They’ve come up with a handy technical brief to get you started. If you don’t know what to measure when it comes to school climate, they give you ideas. If you don’t know whether something you do might contribute negatively or positively, they give you specific behaviors often associated with both positive and negative school climates. Check it out.

Pitfall #3: When Change Happens Too Often

GIF of Jada Pinkett Smith clapping her hands and saying "Stop the cycle"

As someone who works in schools, you know all too well the way new things come and go in your building. Whether it’s a new math curriculum, or grant project collecting data in your classrooms, or how you need a new email address because the district got a new system, changes happen all the time, all around you, every year. How does improving your school’s climate factor in to this endless cycle? Won’t things just change next year anyway? Things have a tendency to come and go regularly.

Solution: Let a Shared Vision Determine Whether a Project Fits

The truth is, figuring out the kind of school you want be a part of and how you can tangibly create it makes selecting which new thing to take on simple. When a new project comes your way, check in with how it fits with your defined norms, values, and beliefs. If it’s a good fit, building that new thing in to your existing systems is a breeze. You even have a foundation on which to determine how to implement that new thing in your school’s context, which is critical to an intervention’s effectiveness.

I don’t know about you, but I do my best work in a place where I’m valued, supported, and trusted. Students are no different. Research confirms all students are more successful when they attend a school with a positive learning environment. Every year, your school should ask students, staff, and families about how school feels to them. Then, pay attention to the three traps your school can fall into when trying to maintain the good things you have going on. Create a vision for your school – how you want it to work and the ways everyone can collaboratively make it that way. Come to school as an example of how you want everyone to act in the building. Know that when new ideas come up, you can always look to the norms, values, and beliefs you’ve defined as a school for guidance on whether that idea fits in with the climate you’ve established.

1. Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S. and Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013). A Review of School Climate Research. Review of Educational Research, 83(3), pp.357-385.
2. Bridwell-Mitchell, E. and Mezias, S. (2012). The Quest for Cognitive Legitimacy: Organizational Identity Crafting and Internal Stakeholder Support. Journal of Change Management, 12(2), pp.189-207.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.