Guiding Principle #1, creating a safe and supportive school environment, is a great first step. However, we must move beyond expressing idealistic principles, and more towards implementing pragmatic best practices. Schools consisting of low-income, high-trauma, and at-risk student populations need targeted approaches. My school, a DCPS traditional public middle school in Ward 8, needs more than guiding principles; we need differentiated support and resources.
GUIDING PRINCIPLE 1: CLIMATE AND PREVENTION
The first step in building safe and supportive schools conducive to academic excellence and student success is to create positive climates. Such climates prevent problem behaviors before they occur and reduce the need for disciplinary interventions that can interfere with student learning.
I agree wholeheartedly that a positive school climate is critical in “building safe and supportive schools conducive to academic excellence and student success.” In fact, the start of each school year serves as a pivotal point for establishing school culture and norms. If establishing such a school-wide culture is imperative for student success, then we must reevaluate the role of pre-service week. This critical week must allow for teacher input. School-wide plans, created in isolation, will inevitably falter throughout the school year. Thus, teacher “buy-in” is critical to maintain consistency throughout any school-wide initiative’s implementation process.
(1) Engage in deliberate efforts to create positive school climates.
Given the relationship between school climate and academic achievement, schools should take deliberate steps to create a positive school climate in which every student can learn, fully engage in a rigorous curriculum, and feel safe, nurtured, and welcome.
School climate requires participation from all stakeholders. Teaching in “silos” must come to an end. School-wide norms and expectations must seep through each, and every, classroom. Moreover, each, and every, household must acknowledge, and agree upon, school-wide behavior expectations. Without parental support or engagement, teachers and administrators are left with one-hand tied behind their backs. I cannot stress this enough: parents, too, are accountable for their child’s academic success. Equally important, students are accountable for their education and conduct, too. In fact, every stakeholder is accountable for a student’s academic development.
(2) Prioritize the use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior.
“Universal” supports are supports provided to all students, prior to any display of disruptive behavior. Universal supports set expectations for behavior in all areas of the school and throughout the entire school day, including during after-hours school-sponsored events. Universal supports should include efforts to explicitly teach and model expected behaviors and social and emotional competencies. Lessons may be integrated into the regular academic curriculum, as well as into school- wide activities and programs that involve all students and staff in all campus settings.
Absolutely! Academic curriculum, alone, doesn’t reduce student misconduct and dis-engagement. Although it’s easy to blame student misconduct on any given teacher, the reality on the ground varies greatly. As per my professional experience, students within my middle school need daily lessons centered on social emotional skills. It’s far too disconnected to assume that students receive positive social skills outside of the school building. In fact, several teachers at my school, if not all, recognize this social emotional skills gap. We must “marry” Guiding Principle #1 with existing education policies, such as teacher evaluations. Simply put, no teacher can serve two masters. If we want to focus on academics and social emotional skills, which I greatly support, then we must encourage this process throughout each, and every, education policy.
“Targeted” supports, such as group interventions, mentoring, peer mentoring, and team building, are provided to students displaying occasional signs of mild to moderate misbehavior. Students in need of targeted supports can be identified more easily, and their needs or behavior can be addressed more effectively, when universal, school-wide supports are in place…“Intensive” supports are individual interventions the school, local agencies, or other stakeholders provide to students who display frequent, moderate, or severe forms of misbehavior, or to students who have experienced trauma or who display other risk factors.
When it comes to my school, unfortunately, there are more than a handful of students that display “occasional signs of mild to moderate behavior.” Although I understand the need to offer “targeted” intervention, this action step is applicable to schools that aren’t inundated with behavior misconduct. If a classroom consists of one-to-two “disruptive” students, then, yes, “targeted” supportive strategies are ideal. However, a classroom overwhelmed with at-risk students, needs a whole-class set of “intensive” interventions. This approach overwhelmingly depends upon a school’s composition, not in terms of demographics, but squarely in terms of socio-economic challenges, i.e. homeless rate, chronic poverty rate, substance abuse rate, etc. In some cases, “intensive” support strategies must shape school-wide policies, and not just per classroom.
Trained school-based support personnel – which may include school counselors, school psychologists, behavioral interventionists, school social workers, mental health providers, and school nurses – can be critical to the effective implementation of tiered supports. These professionals can serve as partners to teachers to help identify student needs and provide school-based emotional and mental health support for struggling and vulnerable students.
Although having trained school-based support staff is an important part to any school, resource allocation schemes must adapt to a school’s specific need. Simply put, a rigid funding formula, which doesn’t differentiate well between schools, is an inadequate approach to providing schools with enough support staff. For example, a fixed formula, which allocates one guidance counselor per two hundred or two hundred and fifty students, is not remotely reasonable for my school. Why? Well, because we have far too many at-risk students who need constant supportive strategies. Therefore, if we’re to take this guiding principle seriously, we must reassess the funding formula.
(3) Promote social and emotional learning to complement academic skills and encourage positive behavior.
Schools should identify key social and emotional competencies that support the school’s goals for a positive school climate and academic achievement. By providing students with opportunities to practice, receive constructive feedback, and reapply these skills, social and emotional learning programs encourage students to closely examine their own behaviors and choices, consider the effect of their behavior on themselves and their communities, and think about what they might have done differently.
I couldn’t agree more with this action step. In fact, I staunchly support incorporating social-emotional skills into K-12 academic curricula. Even though I’m extremely pleased with this policy recommendation, I’m more concern about its implementation. Our students need more than a weekly lesson on social-emotional skills. In fact, I genuinely believe they need a social-emotional course, per grade level. Students, especially teenagers, can benefit greatly from daily lessons centered on developing healthy social and coping skills. We don’t have the luxury of focusing solely on our students’ test scores. It’s our professional, and moral, obligation to strengthen our students’ social-emotional traits, as well. If not, then, in my professional opinion, we’re aren’t adequately preparing them for their future.
Ward 8 DCPS traditional public middle schools need a specific set of targeted strategies, equipped with adequate funding and staff. All three public middle schools – Johnson, Kramer, and Hart – have significant amounts of low-income, high-trauma, and at-risk students. As much as I agree with Guiding Principle #1, our middle schools need more than just words. We need to match educational idealism with educational pragmatism.