East Harlem's Central Park East High School was in trouble eight years ago. It wasn't just the school's low academic achievement, though that was awful too. The school's real problem, according to its principal, was it's whole atmosphere.
Once a respected school in East Harlem, Central Park East had been sucker-punched by mismanagement, leaving the once-proud campus dilapidated, under-funded through administrative neglect, under-attended and under-achieving.
Today, the school is an entirely different place. Its graduation rate has grown from around 35 percent eight years ago to 86 percent last year. Post-secondary enrollment has grown from near nil to 58 percent of graduates.
In a recent online forum, school principal Bennett Lieberman explained that turning Central Park East into the successful, award-winning school required more than strengthening academic focus, and said there was no one-shot solution. The school's overall climate needed to change — and in time, it did. When the school became a place students wanted to be, academic improvements followed. But it took buy-in from the student body to make that happen.
School climate is the major topic of the 2013 "Quality Counts" report from Education Week, the national newspaper of record for K-12 education. The report examined issues surrounding school climate — the interplay of social relationships, safety and security policies, and effective disciplinary procedures that lay the groundwork for academic success. One conclusion was that students can be important allies in improving schools.
The Quality Counts survey of more than 1,300 school-level administrators and educators found that 74 percent of respondents felt school climate is "very important" to student achievement. It's a point backed up by numerous research groups, such as Columbia University's Center for Social and Emotional Education, which reported that a growing body of research attests to school climate's important role "in a variety of overlapping ways, including social and physical safety, and higher graduation rates and academic achievement."
About 80 percent of survey respondents said their schools have adopted a concerted approach to managing student behavior. The study also found poverty levels have a strong influence on school climate. Educators in more affluent schools are about twice as likely to say their school's climate fosters teaching and learning, and that it supports social and emotional well-being, compared with high-poverty schools. Furthermore, teachers in more affluent schools were four times as likely to report that students are well-behaved, compared with high-poverty schools.
At Central Park East, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, those poverty statistics apply. And, in 2005, when Lieberman came to the school, the miseries of growing up poor were compounded by widespread frustration about the school's downward slide.
"That resulted in our school culture or climate as being one of chaos and anger," said Lieberman. "Everyone was really, really angry, because they knew what the school had been, and they knew what the school was at the time."
The next three years were a time of "triage," Lieberman said — a time for sorting out difficulties, making the school sparkle, and getting kids to buy in to making their school a better place.
"It's really hard to get kids to own the climate of their school if they don't feel respected by what we're providing for them," he said.
As a failing school, Central Park East had been forced to reorganize its problems, and that gave Lieberman a budget for changes and a chance to hire the best teachers he could find — something he considers critical to his school's eventual success.
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