Getting Students Back in Their Seats: The Power of Positive School Culture
Within schools across our country, everyone must face certain barriers in order to succeed. School boards face the dreaded budget. Principals face school test scores and various education reforms such as Common Core. Students face assignment deadlines, grade point averages, and college applications, while parents try to balance work, family, and supporting their children’s education.
However, in the world of special and alternative education, there is an additional set of obstacles—truancy, arrests, suspensions, and violence—that mark the at-risk student and are common occurrences that educators must deal with on a daily basis. At our Special and Alternative Education schools, we find a way to turn truancy into attendance, arrests into progress, suspensions into momentum, and violence into peaceful conflict resolution.
Is there a magic formula for success? No. Unfortunately there is no such thing when dealing with at-risk students who have varying degrees of challenges and behavior issues. However, in our programs we maintain there is one unique variable that allows us to create change and ensure success: culture.
Experience has taught us that changing the culture for behaviorally and academically challenged students within a school is beneficial not only to those at-risk students but also to the general student population. Everyone wins when the setting is transformed to promote pro-active, pro-social, and positive performance.
Implementing and sustaining a model of positive peer culture that teaches self-discipline, pride in oneself, and accountability to peers, school, and community requires staff as well as students to model pro-social behaviors and learn to address negative behaviors through a set of conflict-resolution skills. One of the major contributing factors to school violence and truancy is the lack of connection students feel while at school. By creating a feeling of ownership within the school and within the community—that is, when students begin to feel that their perceptions are real, when students begin to ask for insight, when students must problem solve—students feel a connection. In other words, connected students tend to own their surroundings and will seek to enhance it.
Programs that use a multi-pronged strategy of group dynamics, a carefully structured behavior management system, and therapeutic counseling, establish positive expectations among students, which empower them to understand the rationale and benefits of those expectations. With guidance, students quickly begin to meet those expectations and follow clearly defined guidelines. As they do so, they experience success and demonstrate leadership, which enable them to develop as individuals and make progress, first socially and behaviorally and then, most importantly, academically.
The success of our programs at Catapult Learning thus far can be attributed to establishing positive school culture, the first and most critical step in effecting change. And the crux of this approach—the foremost element that underlies, defines, and sustains it—is a type of group and individual counseling practiced on a daily basis. Small groups assemble to discuss issues outside of school that might be interfering with their ability to focus on their educational program. On the basis of what is shared and revealed in this safe forum, staff develops researched-based personal growth programs that support each student’s development in the areas identified as needing attention.
Creating opportunities like this have proven to get students back into their seats. Once they are there—no longer skipping school, attacking classmates, or roaming out of control in the hallways, but fully present and fully concentrated on the task at hand as they meet age-appropriate expectations placed on them—it is the school’s responsibility to continue providing programming and curricular options that invite students to display leadership, enjoy the pride of school ownership, accept accountability for their behaviors and performance, and, above all, give them a voice in the formation of their own school culture.
One of the truest ways to measure success within a school is to observe students’ individual transformations. True at-risk students become role models, leaders, and advocates. Richard Stokes, a graduate of Catapult Learning’s New Hope Academy in Baltimore and self-proclaimed former “bad kid,” embodies how culture can affect change. Over the years that Richard attended New Hope Academy, his initial low attendance and even lower grades slowly transformed, resulting in a high school degree. After graduation, Richard didn’t want just any job. He wanted to come back and work for the school that gave him so much. And he did just that—Richard is now a peer academic mentor, with the goal of one day becoming a school counselor.
With a culture that promotes pro-active, pro-social, and positive performance, schools can get students like Richard back in their seats and teach them how to learn and live better while they are there.