Successful School Climate Improvement: 5 Action Steps for Starting the Year Off Right

by Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters

It’s déjà vu all over again, as another start to the school year is upon us. This is a time to reconnect to our reasons for caring about students and doing all we can to ensure that they attend schools where they feel welcome, safe and connected to caring adults.

The current trends, research and legislation all highlight and promote the importance of school climate as a primary cornerstone and driver for improving safety, discipline, attendance and achievement. According to the National School Climate Center (NCSS), “Students benefit in many ways from safe, caring, and peaceful school environments.”

“Positive school climate has been linked to a host of favorable student outcomes, from attendance to achievement,” writes Milbrey McLaughlin, professor of education and public policy at Stanford University and founding director of the John W. Gardner Center. “A positive school climate includes four key elements for students: physical and emotional safety at school; positive relationships with peers and adults; support for learning; and an institutional environment that fosters connectedness and engagement.”

In order to ensure the attainment of those four positive school climate outcomes outlined by Professor McLaughlin, Community Matters understands that schools must begin with five essential steps… assess, build buy-in, plan, implement and measure. This is true for any school in California or around the nation, and whether it’s for satisfying the requirements of LCAP, Common Core or other mandates:

1. Assess – Undertaking a comprehensive assessment early in your process is critical to understanding what’s working, what’s not and what’s missing in safety initiatives, discipline policies and practices, and in the climate improvement programs needed. It also serves as your best opportunity to include representatives from all key stakeholder groups for their perspectives and for their buy-in;

2. Build Buy-In – Include, include and include. If we want our staffs to embrace the notion of school climate as a predictor of positive educational outcomes, we must use “fair process”. We must be sure to invite their dialogue, encourage their healthy discourse and support the voices of those who are currently “not on board”. By doing so, we model the importance of relationships and the belief that differences of views can be addressed and resolved in a constructive manner. And, we reduce resistance and increase acceptance of decisions that may not be initially accepted by everyone.

3. Plan – Create a comprehensive plan with as much detail as possible outlining specific goals and actions, such as: policies and procedures that will end zero-tolerance and other punitive measures, restorative practices, student leadership and bystander intervention empowerment opportunities, Social Emotional Learning programs, and suspension and expulsion reduction practices and procedures;

4. Implement – Successful implementation begins with the vision and the plan being fully communicated to your team of diverse stakeholders. This step occurs throughout the change process and keeps people in the loop all along the way. Ongoing communication is critical to implementation success, as is being sure that people receive whatever training is needed to carry out the plan. By doing these two things well, you ensure that participants feel confident, competent, included and valued.

5. Measure – When all is said and done, we know that data drives decisions. By starting with comprehensive baseline data, you will be able to see clearly from year to year what’s working, what’s not and where your best opportunities are for improvement. Data is also your best friend when it comes to making your case for future funding and in gaining greater buy-in from organizational and community leaders.

Following these critical steps will help start the year off on the right foot, and ensure your success and the long-term sustainability of your school climate improvement efforts, your LCAP (specific to California schools) plans, and your Common Core implementation.

For more information on school climate improvement, contact Community Matters at 707-823-6159 or email