Special Report
School Climate & Safety Opinion

High Expectations Can Transform a School’s Climate

By Clinton L. Robinson Jr. — January 04, 2013 3 min read

As the new principal of a low-performing school in a state that was threatening to close or take it over, I was perplexed by the placid acceptance of mediocrity and low expectations. My first few months were consumed with managing discipline, parental concerns, and low teacher morale. If students weren’t fighting, they were displaying other acts of aggression, disrespect, or insubordination. Daily class changes were loud and chaotic; when hallways cleared, bathrooms reeked of marijuana and cigarette smoke. Our school had a negative reputation, with a high concentration of gang activity, drugs, theft, violence, and low academic achievement. We were not a place where parents wanted to send their children.

I knew that to change the school climate and maintain discipline with staff and student buy-in, we would have to confront the real issues and set standards and expectations high. And this is exactly what I set out to do.

In our building, gangs created constant chaos through bullying, fighting, and peer pressure. After one particular incident, when I confiscated a 9mm handgun with a loaded clip from a noted gang member, I immediately rounded up every opposing gang member in our building and brought them to the auditorium. We stayed there for three hours and attacked every disagreement and misunderstanding head on. Once we reached a consensus that our school would be “common ground,” I knew nothing would change unless I addressed the after-school concerns.

Every day after school, gangs paraded the sidewalk across from the school, stacking (using hand signals) and making inappropriate gestures. School officials made it clear that we had no jurisdiction over them, and the city police explained that it was within anyone’s right to walk the public street as long as he or she wasn’t breaking the law. But I refused to accept that gangs had a right to stand across the street from our school, intimidate our students, our faculty, and our staff, and recruit potential members. In spite of advice to the contrary, I restructured the procedures for bus dismissal by having every driver park directly in front of the school, without gaps. Instead of seeing gang members when they exited the building, students were greeted with a wall of yellow buses.

Rather than dwelling on discipline, I began to focus on raising expectations. This helped reorient our students to think about their self-worth, academic achievement, school pride, and school climate. We addressed the dress code: Students were not allowed to wear hats; sagging pants; or revealing, provocative, or other inappropriate clothing on campus. Frustrated with students’ excuses for not having a belt, I drove nearly 500 miles to New York City’s garment district, purchased 800 belts, and handed one to every student who “sagged,” accompanied by a lesson in history and the value of self-pride.

See Also

What is the most effective approach for maintaining discipline and a positive climate in the public schools?

Education Week Commentary asked six thought leaders to share their answer to this question in Quality Counts 2013. Read the other responses.

When students used inappropriate language, we reprimanded them, and then taught them how to express the same sentiment correctly. We established The Academy, a male mentoring group, composed of successful students who were responsible for modeling expectations of excellence. This group fostered a more positive environment and encouraged students to address each other’s behavior directly.

In order to tackle low academic achievement, we created the D-F list, requiring any student receiving a D or an F on schoolwork to attend tutorials and forgo extracurricular activities for one week. It was the first of many academically based structures we put in place to move our school from a “priority” school to a “school of distinction” within four years. We knew we had changed the climate of our building at a basketball game when our students sent a powerful message that excellence was the school standard. The visiting team knew victory would be theirs and chanted, “Check the scoreboard.” What revealed the true shift in our school culture was our students’ response. “Check our test scores,” they shouted back in retaliation.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Proms During COVID-19: 'Un-Proms', 'Non-Proms', and Masquerades
High school proms are back in this second spring of COVID-19, though they may not look much like the traditional, pre-pandemic versions.
7 min read
Affton Missouri UnProm
Affton High School students attend a drive-in theater "un-prom" in Missouri on April 18.
Photo Courtesy of Deann Myers
School Climate & Safety Opinion 5 Things to Expect When Schools Return to In-Person Learning
Many schools are just coming back to in-person learning. There are five issues all school communities should anticipate when that happens.
Matt Fleming
5 min read
shutterstock 1051475696
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says 'High-Surveillance' Schools Lead to More Suspensions, Lower Achievement
Cameras, drug sweeps, and other surveillance increase exclusionary discipline, regardless of actual student misbehavior, new research finds.
5 min read
New research suggests such surveillance systems may increase discipline disparities.
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Rising Numbers of Educators Say Pandemic Is Now Blown Out of Proportion, Survey Shows
An EdWeek Research Center survey shows that nearly 3 of every 10 educators believe the pandemic is no longer a real threat to schools.
4 min read
A sign that reads "SOCIAL DISTANCE MAINTAIN 6 FT" was posted on a student locker at a school in Baldwin, N.Y., at the beginning of the school year. But a new survey shows educators' concerns about the pandemic are declining.
A sign that reads "SOCIAL DISTANCE MAINTAIN 6 FT" was posted on a student locker at a school in Baldwin, N.Y., at the beginning of the school year. But a new survey shows educators' concerns about the pandemic are declining.<br/>
Mark Lennihan/AP