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.