2013 Policy Institute

The National School Climate Center hosted its inaugural School Climate Policy Institute on July 8, 2013 in New York City, which focused on advancing school climate policies at the district and school levels. The organizing principle of the School Climate Policy Institute was that those responsible for day-to-day practice and outcomes must have the support necessary to successfully integrate and sustain a school climate that leads to effective student development, achievement and success.

The School Climate Policy Institute was co-designed and co-facilitated by sixteen (16) invited co-sponsor organizations (see below for a list of the co-sponsor organizations) committed to better understanding the need for policies that support school climate improvement. Sixty-four (64) participants representing eleven (11) of the co-sponsor organizations along with several invited guests attended the Institute.

The attendees increased their school climate policy knowledge and skills by examining existing resources and district/school profiles and recommending specific actions steps to deepen, broaden and sustain quality school climate policies. Each co-sponsor identified and committed to a set of organizational and collective actions to advance school climate policy. The inaugural School Climate Policy Institute successfully engaged participants in quality deliberations and decisions regarding advancing school climate policy and giving this important school climate issue higher priority.

2013 School Climate Policy Institute Co-sponsors

  • ASCD
  • Character Education Partnership
  • Equity Assistance Centers
  • Illinois Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools
  • National Coalition of Academic Service-Learning
  • National School Climate Center
  • New York Civic Liberties Union
  • New York State Center for School Safety
  • Special Olympics Project UNIFY
  • Vanderbilt University: Tennessee Center for Safe and Supportive Schools
  • Connecticut State, District and School Leadership Team

The School Climate Policy Institute was co-designed and co-facilitated by sixteen (16) invited co-sponsor organizations. Each co-sponsor organization elected a team leader who participated in one of three School Climate Policy Institute Work Groups: (1) preparation, (2) facilitation or (3) sustainability to ensure the resources offered, the strategies employed and the commitments made at the School Climate Policy Institute were relevant to each co-sponsor organization and their team. A National School Climate Center staff member or partner led each of the three Work Groups ensuring shared leadership and congruence among the three components of the School Climate Policy Institute.

Once the Facilitation Work Group determined the basic structure of the School Climate Policy Institute, the Preparation Work Group reviewed and prepared a set of resources that each participant reviewed prior to the School Climate Policy Institute; meanwhile the Sustainability Work Group identified a set of strategic options co-sponsors can implement post-School Climate Policy Institute.

The set of resources included Policy 101 overviews, examples of district/school profiles and policies, policy options consistent with a set of School Climate Practice Briefs and other materials to adequately prepare the School Climate Policy Institute participants for deliberations and decisions during the School Climate Policy Institute.

The Facilitation Work Group designed a five-stage agenda (see inset) to advance co-sponsor teams from focusing on a shared vision to focusing on a set of prioritized action steps.

Each of the five agenda items incorporated a set of protocols to engage School Climate Policy Institute participants in quality deliberations and decisions to advance school climate policy at the district and school levels.

1. The Dive Into the Day

Clement Coulston, an Inclusive Youth Leadership Development Intern for Project UNIFY/Special Olympics and University of Delaware student, and Maxted Lenz, a National Coalition for Academic Service-Learning Intern and University of Wisconsin student, provided the Institute’s opening remarks, which stressed the importance of youth inclusion and the need to engage students as critical contributors to school climate improvement efforts and the adoption and implementation of effective school climate policies.

Jonathan Cohen, President of the National School Climate Center, then greeted the participants by first expressing his gratitude for their attendance and thanking the Leadership Team and Co-Sponsors’ Team Leaders who helped organize and facilitate the Policy Institute. Jonathan noted that "[w]e are most powerful as a team" and that "[e]ffective change can only happen through teamwork", a common theme throughout the Institute. He went on further to state that we need to think about "specific tasks and challenges" and focus on "[creating] coalitions for moving forward."

In order to encourage discussion and collaboration amongst the Institute’s participants, Clement and Maxted led the group through an Icebreaker activity. The participants were asked to work in small groups, and each group was presented with an envelope containing a set of words and phrases, which could be arranged into a meaningful sentence, such as, “[y]outh engagement is the highest level of involvement and happens when youth are the primary drivers of the work, from conceptualization to implementation and reflection." The goal of this activity was to ensure that there was a common understanding of school climate and policy vernacular amongst the group. The sentences were then displayed on the walls of the auditorium for reference throughout the day (see inset).

To conclude this portion of the Institute, Terry Pickeral, President of Cascade Educational Consultants and member of the National School Climate Council, encouraged the participants to reflect upon the issues and challenges that would be discussed throughout the day and urged them to work jointly together to sustain this work by creating a series of school climate policy briefs based on these issues and challenges.

2. Background Pieces and Shared Vision

Randy Ross and Velma Cobb, both members of Equity Assistance Centers, facilitated the next activity of the day. Each small group of participants received a description of one of three fictitious school districts with unique strengths and needs. These profiles were a result of collaboration between multiple cosponsors and were intentionally designed to vary in characteristics such as ethnicity, population size, socioeconomic status, and school climate. Group members were then asked to identify and share one specific thing in the profile that stuck out to them and open it up to group discussion with particular attention to how policies may be affecting practice. They were then asked to record and share one suggestion for the district based on their group discussion. Suggestions included more self awareness of cultural norms, effective district and school leadership, organized communication, shared vision about what we need to have supportive, respectful, and caring environments, inclusive and democratically informed professional development, youth development and empowerment, less overlap in policies, infrastructure for the development of relationships, and engagement of all students, staff, parents, and community. A notable quote from this portion of the day was that, “Administrators in schools need to not be thermometers but to be thermostats,” meaning that it is not enough for administrators to just measure the school climate, but for them to make changes in response to the measurement findings. This exercise provided the groups with an opportunity to analyze why and how the policy is affecting the current nature of the district/school through the practices articulated by those policies.

3. Deeper Meanings: Common Pieces of Policy

Randy Ross and Velma Cobb then led the groups in an exercise that supported them in better understanding how policy influences practice, negatively and positively. On each group table, there was one of eleven Practice Briefs (see inset) that outlined best practices that support effective school climate reform. First, group members were asked to pair up and identify three strengths and three challenges of their fictitious school district. Each pair then shared with their group the strengths and challenges they identified. Randy Ross and Velma Cobb then asked the group members to review the assigned Practice Brief on their table. With these practices in mind, group members were asked to identify recommendations for the school district, paying particular attention to policies that are supporting best practices and policies that are hindering best practices. Group members recorded their recommendations on easel papers and then posted these to the wall. All participants were invited to review all groups’ recommendations during lunch.

Next, Randy and Velma led an exercise called Chalk Talk. Chalk Talk is a silent way to reflect and brainstorm ideas. They started by writing the question “How does school district policy influence what happens?” on a piece of easel paper. Then group members were asked to write on the easel paper their responses or comments on other people’s responses without any discussion. Group members’ responses included, “Policy set standards and agreements,” “Policy can initiate change; people need accountability structures,” “Policy indicates what the school/district values and prioritizes,” and “Policy is the roadmap that drives the system to get better at what it does.”

4. Implications

Building on the previous Chalk Talk exercise, the participants were asked to similarly reflect upon the question, “How does work at the state and national level create the conditions for local success in their school climate work?” (see inset) Some highlights include, work at the state and national level provides “Standards, yearly benchmarks, time-lines, resources, funding, professional development, expectations- mandatory not optional,” “Support and guidance instead of punitive restrictions,” “Priorities and funding to support and link to school improvement and accountability systems,” and “Organizing framework/principles.”

The participants were then asked to group themselves by organization to discuss the following:

  • What are the strategies we need to implement in order to get to those policies?
  • Who are the co-contributors to this work and how do we engage them?
  • If we want these policies, what do we as an organization do?
  • If we want these policies, what do we do as a whole group?

5. Action Agenda: Conclusions and Commitments to Next Steps and Sustainability Efforts

The final portion of the day involved taking the first steps toward co-creating a school climate policy improvement agenda and corresponding strategies. To this end, after each co-sponsor organization briefly discussed the four questions mentioned above, they reported out to the whole group the priorities and recommendations they identified for advancing a quality policy agenda that would effectively implement, enhance and sustain school climate at the district and school levels. The following are some of the highlights of the priorities and recommendations developed by each co-sponsor organization:

  • Create a school/district school climate model that is reproducible;
  • Bring civic studies back to the classrooms;
  • Continue the conversation at the state-wide/national level;
  • Educate administrators and leadership, including training of board members;
  • Develop a state/national consensus regarding school climate and unify definitions of school climate; share work across districts;
  • Provide resources at the practice level and expand the policy level; connect policy with practice;
  • Understand the leverage points where change can occur and understand and promote those districts where there is success;
  • Ensure that organizations focused on promoting positive school climate “practice what they preach”;
  • Ensure a focus on equity;
  • Support national policy with common definitions and advocate for national adoption and long-term support;
  • Collect information so we can put together documents for best practices in a way that is helpful to all; include shared leadership, collaboration and collective input.

After completing this exercise, the co-leaders wrote down the list of recommendations on flip chart paper and each participant was asked to vote for his/her top priority(ies). Each participant received 4 sticker dots with which to cast his/her votes; individuals could vote with one dot per question or combine them (see inset).

After tallying the votes, the four recommendations that were identified as the top priorities were the following: 1) “Collect information, organize it, disseminate to help all”; 2) “Look at the leverage points”; 3) “Recruit leaders”; 4) “Change accountability metrics to include school climate.”

As a concluding exercise, each co-sponsor organization identified and committed to a set of organizational and collective action-steps to advance school climate policy. Some highlights of the action-steps identified and committed to are the following:

  • Cause teachers to create more engaging classrooms and provide resources to those teachers;
  • Employ and utilize alternative discipline;
  • Utilize school climate as a prevention pathway, promote nonviolence and social-emotional learning, and look for ground-level strategies;
  • Commit to a statewide bottom-up/top-down approach and eventually replace all current laws with laws focused on climate; build capacity at all levels, and bring down barriers to learning;
  • Provide schools with the resources they need to promote positive school climate;
  • Cultivate cultural responsibility and promote school climate with a cultural and equity lens;
  • Bring states together to collaboratively go over school safety research, think about the components of intentional practice, reflective practice, and cultural responsiveness beyond superficial levels;
  • Look at federal policies and district policies to determine how current programming is helping different organizations advance policies in schools;
  • Create a school climate task force and conduct a national briefing of expert practitioners for Congress to support school climate and understand how it relates to the effectiveness of schools;

A few words from Jonathan Cohen, President of the National School Climate Center.

Darlene Ruscitti, DuPage County (Illinois) Regional Superintendent of Schools, discusses the paradigm shift around accountability systems and the need to focus not just on academics, but also the climate of a school.

Sean Slade, Director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD, discusses how policy influences what happens in the classroom and across the school and the need to engage all stakeholders.

Edward Fergus, Assistant Professor in Education Leadership at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, addresses the need to dissect the relevance of school climate to different sets of populations being served.

Randy Ross of the New England Equity Assistance Center discusses some of the challenges associated with advancing a comprehensive school climate policy.

Linda McKay from the Character Education Partnership talks about the relationship between policy and practice and the need for an integrative process.