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School Climate & Safety Opinion

High Expectations Can Transform a School’s Climate

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

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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.

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