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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Creating an Inclusive School Culture

By Peter DeWitt — September 06, 2011 2 min read
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Officials need not endorse any particular student organization, but federal law requires that they afford all student groups the same opportunities to form, to convene on school grounds, and to have access to the same resources available to other student groups (Duncan, 2011, p.2).*

Some schools can be cold and unfriendly. Perhaps it’s because they are unsafe or there is an over-focus on academics and an under-focus on school climate. It has been said that you can tell the climate of a school within the first two minutes you walk in the entrance. Do we have a school that is resistant to change? Staff of a resistant school are set in old ways and not always open-minded to the changing times. Members of an inclusive school, however, work hard to find ways to include all students, parents, and staff. An inclusive school is open to creativity and diversity.

Whether we like it or not, as administrators we are responsible for that. That is not to say that teachers, students, and staff also do not play an important part in school climate; it’s just that we set the tone. When we know about issues, it is our job to address them. One of the issues that many schools have is an unfriendly atmosphere, which can have devastating effects on student performance.

When we have a building with an unfriendly atmosphere, a percentage of our students feel that unfriendliness and become disengaged. They say things like, “They don’t care about me,” or “I can’t wait to get out of here.” School should not be a place where they just do seat time until they can get out and pursue what they really want to do. When we ignore the percentage of students who do not fit in, we are just perpetuating their insecurities that we do not want them to fit in.

Parents also feel a positive or negative school climate when they visit the school. A parent who feels unwelcome is less likely to visit and more likely to say negative things about the school. When we have less parental involvement, we have established a culture that seems uncaring. Parents and students can be our best allies during these times when it seems like education is under attack. Instead of being our biggest critics, they can be our biggest cheerleaders, just as we should be for them. The best school systems know how to include parents. They also understand how to engage all students.

The following are some ways that you can build an inclusive school: Use inclusive language for all races, gender, and sexual orientation and prevent others from talking about those groups in a derogatory way. Participate in GLSEN's No Name Calling Week - www.glsen.org Purchase a Safe Space Kit for your school. For more information, go to www.glsen.org Include diverse literature in your classroom and library. Diverse means literature that focuses on single-parent, same-sex parent, and adoptive parent households. It also includes family structures with children being raised by an aunt and uncle or grandparents. Adopt character education words like respect, acceptance, and honesty. Do not use the word tolerance. People want to be accepted, not tolerated. Send staff research-based articles that focus on respectful school cultures. Education Week, Educational Leadership, NAESP, and NASSP are great resources that can offer these articles. Send staff opinion pieces about inclusive school cultures. Opinion pieces can provoke thought and debate among your staff. Send staff research-based articles that address bullying of LGBT students. Discuss the need for an inclusive school culture at faculty meetings. An inclusive school includes acceptance of all students regardless of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Create a Principal's Advisory Council (PAC) or cabinet and focus on school culture as your main priority. Brainstorm ways that you can create a more accepting school system. Don't have numerous goals. Collaborate with the team to establish one goal and then make an action plan. If you tell staff that using homophobic or gender-biased language is inappropriate, they will listen. If you are an administrator who believes in gender biases and homophobia, your staff will hear that as well. Train staff to address issues they hear and see in the hallway. They cannot ignore those issues. It's easier for staff members to walk away when they hear homophobic language. Teach them how to address it. Establish a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in your school. Instead of waiting for a student to do so, it would be even more powerful if you, as the administrator, established a GSA for your students. In these times of anonymous blogs and adults who are quick to tell us what they hate about the work we do, instead of offering to suggestions to help, trying to move out of the status quo can be difficult and you will receive pushback from some community members and some staff. It's hard to make changes because although most people are always supportive, there will always be a few who are not. It is better to be hated for doing the right thing than to be hated for doing the wrong thing. Creating an inclusive school community for all students is the right thing to do because it allows a place in your school for all students, regardless of gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.

* Duncan, Arne (2011); Dear Colleague Letter; United States Department of Education; Washington, D.C.

Whitaker, T. (2003). What Great Principals Do Differently. Columbus: Eye on Education.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.