A positive school climate may be hard to build, but it is not hard to recognize.

Philadelphia has its share of schools with a welcoming environment and a sense of community. All over the city, we find spaces where people feel cared for, students are engaged and well-mannered, parents are involved, staff is supported, and diversity is valued.

Yet far too many schools have only a minimal sense of trust and safety, characterized instead by disengagement, disrespect, and even violence. The vision of a warm and welcoming environment seems unattainable.

The District’s challenge is to help these schools create a caring and safe space for learning. And for this, there are no quick fixes. No assembly or one-day training session, no central office mandate will do it. Neither will zero-tolerance discipline policies. There is no evidence that zero tolerance makes schools safer, and certainly none that it makes schools more caring. 

To be sure, clarity and consistency about rules, expectations, and consequences are key to safety. But disciplinary consistency is not the same as the “do that and you’re out of here” attitude that permeates many schools.

Welcoming schools that provide safe havens from the often perilous outside world almost always have strong leadership and emphasize collective problem-solving. These schools work hard at teaching conflict resolution skills, helping students work out their differences, deal with anger they may bring to school, and learn to talk through issues rather than beat someone up. Positive social skills and relations forged in classrooms and schools can, in turn, strengthen communities.

We realize that teachers are not social workers or therapists, which is why a good school climate requires sufficient outside supports to diagnose problems and get help for students or families in distress.

And we cannot overstate the academic component of a positive climate. Troubled schools often lack interactive and engaging classes. Students who are disengaged or struggling are more likely to be disruptive, while students who feel successful are less likely to act out.

The District is now exploring – and even institutionalizing – some preventive and affirming approaches to discipline. But we see at the same time a surge in expulsions and lots of talk about getting rid of the “bad” kids. As frameworks for approaching school climate, these two approaches are incompatible. There has to be clarity from the top on which course to take.

From where we sit, zero tolerance is not the way to build mutual respect and trust within a school. An approach that seeks to bring out the best in students instead of throwing the book at them doesn’t have to equate to leniency or tolerance of violence. It’s easier to set high expectations for behavior in a supportive community. Positive messages about behavior are what students and schools most need to hear.

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