The Power of Community in Influencing School Climate

May 21 2014


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
  • Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
    Rick Phillips
    Founder, Community Matters

What we know today is that safety in schools is best achieved by focusing more attention on school climate. An intentional focus on improving climate also has a positive correlation to higher attendance, better academic achievement and reductions in discipline incidents.

The Five Determinants of School Climate

In previous blogs we have outlined the positive impact that the organization (school administration and policies), staff, students and parents can have on school climate. The fifth and final primary determinant is “community”. All five of these determinants have a different ‘leverage value’ or capacity to influence climate. Some are more direct and immediate, like student engagement, while others are more indirect and can require more time, funding, emphasis and organization in order to gain the maximum desired impact.

Community as a Determinant of School Climate

Community as a determinant of school climate is one of the more indirect influences, but it is no less important. When we talk about “Community” as having an effect on school climate we are talking about the values, beliefs and practices that are evident outside the walls of the school and home, before and after the start of the school day. In particular, the importance of the community determinant is reflected in the emphasis that the community places on education, and on nurturing the educational and social-emotional well-being of its youth. It is also reflected in the attitudes and behaviors a community expresses towards its school-aged children -- are they seen as consumers or contributors; as clay to be molded into compliance and servitude or seeds to be nurtured into unique expressions of creative intelligence, empathy and leadership?

While we have invested an enormous amount of time and money into trying to keep schools safe by adding security guards, metal detectors, fences and cameras on our campuses, in relative proportion, we have invested far less in the resources needed to keep prejudice, racism, elitism and exclusionary attitudes from entering our schools in the first place. We must be willing to invest time, money, caring and other resources, not just on enhanced “security”, but rather also in support of youth development.

Community Teaches Values

Youth watch, listen and form aspects of their character based in part on adult behaviors:

  • How we behave and how we treat one another.
  • A community teaches values by how it votes in school referendums,
  • By the quality of jobs made available to youth, by the degree to which funding is made available for youth-centered services,
  • By how well the city parks are maintained and made available for regular use,
  • To what degree young people are included in the forming of policies that directly impact them and
  • Even how we respond to youths passing by us on the sidewalk.

Consistent Message of Kindness

Perhaps even more importantly, the community must provide its youth congruent, consistent messages that promote kindness, non-violence, restorative relationship processes and having the courage to speak up for the respectful and compassionate treatment of all. For example, we want our sports coaches to teach sportsmanship -  working together toward common goals of integrity, solving problems without violence, as well as the desire to play one’s best and to win. Whatever young people witness and experience firsthand out in the community, they take into school with them where, negative or positive, they act it out.

Groups in the Community that can Help

The groups that typically make up the community determinant include, but are not limited to, stakeholders such as:

  • Youth serving organizations like the YMCA/YWCA, Boys & Girls Clubs,
  • Scouting organizations and
  • Park & recreation programs,
  • Faith-based organizations,
  • Local businesses and
  • Law enforcement.

Each of these is comprised of people who model values and behaviors for our students and of places where our youth develop their sense of self, belonging and meaning.

When all five determinants of the Whole School Climate Framework are incorporated, including all the key stakeholders of a community, we can feel confident that we have empowered a generation of young people who feel connected and committed to positive values, and who have the courage and competence to speak up against injustice, intolerance and indifference. We will have passed the torch to a new group of young leaders who are prepared to prosper, problem solve and peacefully coexist in a diverse, ever-changing and complex world.

Taking the Next Steps

Assessing Current State of Affairs

One of the very first steps a community can take in their efforts to help improve and strengthen the climate in its schools is to assess its current state of affairs -- what are the images, attitudes, opinions and beliefs that youth are observing and absorbing? What level of involvement do youth have in forming the policies that most impact their lives? What opportunities for self-expression, leadership and advancement are offered young people beyond what their school makes available? Are students valued and respected in the workplace? What resources and training have been provided to help teach them to be peacemakers? Whatever the attitudes may be towards youth they will sense it and mirror those attitudes both in and out of school.

Convening Key Stakeholders

One of the most important components of a comprehensive assessment of strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and opportunities, is a convening of all the key stakeholders (including school and district administration) to undertake a professionally-facilitated dialogue. The intention of the dialogue is to unearth their “common ground”, the core values and objectives that everyone can agree upon. Once the common ground has been articulated and accepted, the community can begin to build a vision and strategies ensuring that youth will receive clear, strong and congruent messages that they will absorb and integrate into their character, and that they will carry into their schools. Then we can be confident that the positive climate that students engender within the school walls will gradually become a direct reflection of the positive community climate.

Our Gift to You

Community Matters offers a no-cost initial consultation to educators to discuss their school climate concerns, through our Whole School Climate 360 Audit. We offer this for free as a way to give back to educators who work so hard every day to make their school environment positive. Any questions large or small about your school's climate are welcome. Please feel free to call us to ask a question or consult with our knowledgeable staff. We can be reached at (707) 823-6159 M-F.

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