by ALEXANDRA RETTER
As Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Diversity and Equity Committee (DEC) has long sought funding for work that would address the district’s school climate amid testimony of racism in school, the district plans on taking a broader approach. Under a free collaboration, work to analyze and create a plan to address aspects of school climate from daily schedules to student engagement to mental health may soon take place at WAPS.
Under the partnership, districts work with a Regional Center of Excellence (RCE) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).
The work, which would be free aside from costs associated with staff members being absent for meetings tied to the work, would take place over three years, and representatives would collaborate with a team of district staff members.
Topics such as the behaviors adult staff members are modeling for students, schools’ daily schedules, schools’ physical environments, student engagement, mental health, school safety, bullying, codes of conduct outlining school rules and restorative practices, would be addressed.
Social-emotional skills and expectations for students in the classroom, as well as classroom management strategies and professional development opportunities for teachers, would be covered as well. Professional development would be aimed at all district staff members, from teachers to paraprofessionals to bus drivers.
“It’s not about a singular building or a singular problem area,” Regional Center of Excellence Climate Advocate Joe Jezierski said at DEC’s July 22 meeting. “It is about the district. So there’s a district focus. And then it’s about aligning the work across [district] buildings.” First, an “on-boarding” process would occur. During on-boarding, the district and its partners would develop an agreement about committing to the work for three years. They would next discuss what they would like school climate to look like at each school and across the district.
The work would then shift to surveying students, parents and staff members about their perceptions of school climate. Data regarding matters such as student behavior, academics and attendance would also be analyzed. All of the data would then be reviewed by the district and the representatives to assist with developing a school climate plan for each school and the district overall.
“This is not a top-down model,” Jezierski said. “This is a bottom-up model where we want to hear all voices and use those voices to be able to create a plan to be able to move forward.”
The school climate perceptions survey could be taken at local churches or other community locations, such as the YMCA, he noted.
Social-emotional learning standards would be developed as well. Social-emotional learning addresses students’ awareness of themselves and their interactions with others. The standards would accompany standards for subjects such as math and reading.
Jezierski would be present at each school at least twice a month to help district staff members with the plan and implementing it in a sustainable way, he said. The district team and RCE and MDE representatives would also meet for five days each year. “And at the end of this, the intention here is your district now is in a place where you can continue the work without the need for someone outside the district,” Jezierski shared.
Washington Kosciusko Elementary School Principal Dawn Waller Lueck asked how work being done to promote equity in the district would fit into the school climate efforts. MDE School Climate Specialist Heather Hirsch said equity is part of school climate. “So in our work with cohorts, we’re really intentional about making sure your mission and vision are reflective of equitable access for all of your students and families,” Hirsch stated. “And that’s why … we really help you plan about how you’re going to get feedback from families you may not hear from often.”
DEC member Maurella Cunningham asked how the district would be held accountable for reaching the goals in its school climate plan. Jezierski noted that the district’s partners would not be a compliance group ensuring that the district meets its goals, as the district would volunteer to participate in the school climate work. “And part of that is intentional, because we could write a plan for you, and walk away, or we could send out the communication,” about the plan to district families, Jezierski said. “But when we leave, you’re not prepared to do it on your own” if the partners complete that work instead of the district.
Hirsch said districts could re-evaluate their participation in the school climate work after undertaking it. “We have had districts in the first cohort that, we do ask that you participate and that you do certain things along the way, and if a district is unable to comply with that, we simply ask them to consider whether or not this is still part of the work they want to be doing, or if there are other ways we can support them,” Hirsch noted. “Because we do invest a significant amount of time and money into it.”