2017-12-07 / Opinion

GUEST VIEW

Improving the Culture and Climate in Newport Public Schools

You may have recently read One Newport guest views on early childhood education and multiple opportunities and pathways. Another important initiative of the Newport Public Schools’ (NPS) five-year strategy concerns school culture and climate. Teachers and students need a comfortable, safe, clean, inviting and supportive environment where interactions and personal experiences are positive and where everyone is striving together toward common goals. The goal of this initiative is improved attendance, graduation rates and test scores, and a reduction of suspensions and referrals.

“School culture” refers to the physical and social environment, or how people “act” in the school. It is defined by the individual experiences and feelings within the school community, or how people “feel” in the school.

The best way to assess the culture and climate of a school is to conduct surveys in the community. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has created SurveyWorks, a tool that allows families, students, teachers and staff to provide their opinions about the schools. The spring 2017 results for the NPS in pride/culture and school climate scored 64 percent for elementary students, 37-43 percent for secondary students, 38 percent for teachers and support staff, and 73 percent for families.

A 100 percent score means the school has the most favorable culture and climate. The survey data was reviewed with the principals this summer. The survey, as well as data on discipline, suspension and referrals, was used to develop professional development (PD) and social emotional learning (SEL) programs.

The PD programs help teachers, staff and students understand how to handle difficult emotional and social situations. “Mindfulness” helps teachers reduce stress, increase focus and decrease emotional reactivity. Another popular PD program is based on Dr. Martin Luther King’s philosophy of non-violence. Currently many Newport teachers have more than 16 hours of training in this philosophy and are implementing it in their classrooms.

Two critical programs being used in the schools are “Restorative Practice” and “Conscious Discipline.” Both are methods teachers and students use to respond to challenging behaviors by promoting inclusiveness, relationship building and problem-solving. These programs help reduce classroom disruptions and improve academic performance.

At Pell Elementary School, a successful program called Open Circle is focused on improving students’ social skills and reducing problem behaviors. There are classroom meetings where students form a circle of chairs. Topics include managing emotions, sorting problems, problem-solving and relationships. As one first-grader said, “I am a good positive leader when I say kind words and listen.”

Since 2016, the Newport Public Education Foundation (NPEF) has granted $18,000 for teacher training and supplies for this program.

Thompson Middle School has implemented a program called POWER, which stands for participate, organize, work hard, everybody safe and respect. Students are awarded POWER stickers for positive behaviors. Students redeem the tickets for tangible goods, such as school supplies, extra gym time and even Subway sandwiches. Students are recognized at celebrations for good attendance and academic performance. The POWER program is made possible through fundraisers. It is linked to Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports (PBIS), a program that has been in place at Thompson for more than six years.

Rogers High School has the “Girls Circle” program, which is designed by the One Circle Foundation to empower girls and provide them with confidence and resiliency. The girls meet once a week to discuss topics with real-life applicability. NPEF has recently given Rogers a grant to purchase training and materials to establish a “Boys Council,” which is similar to the one for the girls. The training will engage boys in activities and discussions about stereotypical concepts, to improve their emotional, social and cultural experiences.

Rogers is using a $150,000 BARR Foundation grant and a matching grant from the Van Beuren Charitable Foundation to develop a plan that will transform and improve the culture and climate of the school. To plan the process, teachers and staff are visiting other schools to explore their designs and models. The plan will be completed at the end of the 2017-18 school year. If approved, BARR will grant additional funding for full implementation of the plan.

Programs similar to Open Circle are still needed at both Thompson and Rogers. RIDE’s survey had low scores for the secondary schools in areas of anxiety, school safety and school-teacher relationships. Students need to have a place where they can air their concerns.

In the coming months there will be more One Newport guest views on the strategic initiatives. If you would like to volunteer to help, please contact Marcin Rembisz at marcinrembisz@nprsi.net.

Donna McCarthy is a One Newport team member and is on the board of the Newport Public Education Foundation. She taught French for 14 years in secondary schools in Massachusetts. She also held management positions in high-tech companies for 25 years.

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