Building Community and Positive Relationships: How Some D.C. Public Charter Schools are Changing their Climate

By: Brian Robinson, Policy Fellow

Last week the D.C. Public Charter School Board (PCSB) hosted about two-dozen school leaders from across the city to talk about ways they have built a positive school climate. The National School Climate Center defines school climate as “the quality and character of school life.” When schools have a positive school climate, students are more likely to want to attend school, feel safe at school, develop positive relationships with peers and adults, and be engaged with teaching and learning.

Center City PCS – Brightwood Campus was applauded by PCSB for having one of the highest attendance and lowest chronic absenteeism rates in the charter sector. This was true across all subgroups (i.e., special education, at-risk, black, Hispanic students). Some strategies they credit for their success include:

  • Engaging all stakeholders in monitoring attendance. The school’s counselor and operations manager meet twice a week to review attendance data. Teachers flag absences, particularly from students who aren’t usually absent. Parents know the school takes attendance seriously and alert them for planned absences.
  • Using varying strategies for different families. Strategies include daily wake-up calls, home visits, and personalized solutions to encourage students to come to school.

Friendship Tech Prep PCS was credited for increasing academic outcomes, as well as its high attendance and low suspension rates. School administration realized their practice of suspending students was overused and ineffective, so they evaluated different models of addressing student behavior. Most importantly, they included students in these conversations asking them how they want to learn, why they are absent, and how to make school “lit”. Out of these conversations, they made some changes including:

  • Switching to project-based learning, allowing students to engage with their learning in a more practical way.
  • Created committees led by students. The uniform committee created uniforms that students would actually want to wear. The attendance committee made administration aware of issues with bus transportation.
  • Implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) where students receive rewards for early attendance or being “caught” doing good, as well as “dollars” to be redeemed for privileges such as “dress down Fridays”.

Creative Minds PCS received a shout-out from PCSB for low suspension rates and high in-seat attendance across all student subgroups and school levels. The school credits their success to creating a sense of community and an inclusive mission. Successful strategies include:

  • Professional development around positive behavior and building relationships.
  • Integrating projects and arts into their curriculum to make students excited about learning.
  • Inclusion of students with disabilities, especially at young ages.
  • Investing in staff. Every classroom at Creative Minds PCS has an assistant teacher. Some classes have three teachers. The school also invests in support staff including multiple counselors, social workers, and/or behavioral specialists.
  • Reframing staff mindset away from suspensions and towards restorative justice and getting to source of problems.

It doesn’t take a research study to know kids learn the best when they are in happy and positive environments that engage, support, and make them feel included. Kudos to these schools and the many others who are being creative and intentional about how they build community and positive relationships with their students every day.

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