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    Photo: Monica Lyons-Jones




"Any school that does not focus on character, values, the essential part of what it means to be a member of a community, is a school that is always going to have a problem with discipline."

These comments by Pedro Noguera, urban education scholar and professor at New York University, sparked a lively conversation about how to build a positive school climate at a symposium hosted by the Notebook and Need in Deed, a local teacher network, on January 14 at the Comcast Tower.

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Photo: Monica Lyons-Jones
Keyote speaker Pedro Noguera

For the Notebook, the event, titled “School climate: Creating space for learning” was a follow-up to its Winter edition, which probed issues of school discipline and problems of violence in Philadelphia schools and explored alternatives to the zero-tolerance policies that have been in vogue in many school districts.

Changing the culture

Noguera kicked off the discussion with a 30-minute talk to the audience of 100, in which he emphasized that the climate in a school is a reflection of the culture: “the attitudes, the beliefs, the norms, the values, the relationships that characterize any organization.”

The culture of a school is often easy to discern from how students carry themselves in the hallways, how teachers interact in the lounge, or how visitors are greeted at the front desk, he said.

“Changing the culture of a school is a lot harder than changing the curriculum or other things, even though it’s cheaper,” Noguera said. “It’s hard because in too many of our schools there is a dysfunctional culture that’s rooted in certain patterns and behaviors that people take for granted.”

He offered a litany of examples of signs of dysfunctional culture – from schools with armed guards who don’t talk to the students to schools where adults are busy assigning blame on students, parents, and one another as to why the school doesn’t improve. He added that usually “the sick culture starts in the classroom,” observing that the most disruptive students are “the kids who are the least connected to learning.”

But Noguera also offered descriptions of schools with safe and supportive climates, thriving even though they are in grim surroundings where poverty is high.

A panel of educators and activists joined Noguera in tackling the questions of what strategies can help to move a school from a dysfunctional to a more positive and affirming culture: West Philadelphia High School senior and Philadelphia Student Union member Khalif Dobson; Johnny Irizarry of the School Reform Commission and La Casa Latina at the University of Pennsylvania; Stetson Middle School teacher and Need in Deed teacher network member Celeste Rodriguez; and Sheila Simmons, education director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth.

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Photo: Monica Lyons-Jones
Johnny Irizarry and Celeste Rodriguez

Audience members also spoke to these issues and their relevance to the recent conflicts at South Philadelphia High School.

Student voice

Dobson spoke about how student organizing in some Philadelphia high schools has opened up communication with adults in their building and given students a sense that they do have a voice in their schools.

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Photos: Monica Lyons-Jones
Pedro Noguera and Khalif Dobson continue the conversation  with Notebook board member Helen Gym and other participants after the symposium.

Noguera responded that a good place for schools to start in trying to build a more positive culture is to make time to ask students their opinions and make sure adults listen to what students say.

The panel was moderated by veteran local news reporter Dave Davies of WHYY and was underwritten with grants from the Patricia Kind Family Foundation and other local companies, organizations, and individuals.

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Paul Socolar

Paul is the Notebook's former editor and publisher and also one of its founders in 1994.