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Improving School Climate? Tip #1: Don't Cut Climate Staff

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A great deal of what's widely considered (or derided) as "education reform" over the last decade reflects a philosophy espoused by former President George W. Bush, in what is now a well-known piece of education rhetoric: Overcoming "the soft bigotry of low expectations." The thought is that a school can make its students achieve regardless of extenuating circumstances, and it drives policies ranging from teacher evaluation to accountability.

On the other hand, many push ideas that engage students on every front, from counseling to nutrition to anti-drug campaigns, under the belief that there are nonacademic reasons that students might not become proficient at math and reading.

School violence is one of the most worrisome of such factors, especially in urban schools heavy with gang presence, and especially in districts closing schools. As if to emphasize this point, the U.S. Department of Education found a 10 percent increase in the number of guns in schools between 2008-2011. And so comes pieces like this one by social worker Jeff Deeney in The Atlantic, about how the recent Philadelphia school budget cuts—I believe the word "doomsday" has been thrown around—sacrifices not just many teachers, but also the staff members that focus on major school climate needs.

"School aides in places like Bartram [High School] aren't just low-level administrative staff," Deeney writes. "They're sometimes surrogate moms, sometimes drug counselors, sometimes sex educators. They diffuse scuffles that could easily morph into news-making brawls, using their knowledge of the students and the community to navigate interactions with a cultural competence you can't teach in graduate school."

Sometimes, they're just a calming presence. Take, for instance, the 600 adults Chicago will hire to help keep routes to school safe after that city's recent closures. The city struggles against devastating violence (last weekend, police reported 41 gun-related injuries and deaths), even as the police report homicides to be down over last year. As Marilyn Rhames writes on her Charting My Own Course blog, "It's not even summer yet. My students were discussing this yesterday and one kid said, 'It's like our whole 8th grade class got shot and 8 of us are dead.'"

In Oakland, Calif., pervasive violence contributed to the creation of a five-year plan, initiated in 2011, that aims to convert the entire district into a system of community schools that emphasize safety. Community schools generally seem to be making headway, embraced by states such as Oregon and New Mexico.

Some of those involved in the Oakland effort, incidentally, contributed to a new Education Week Commentary praising the role of community schools. They state: "It is time to be honest and recognize how unrealistic it is to ask our schools to lead instruction and deliver better outcomes when students face so many unmet needs that are at the heart of their readiness to learn."

When cities close schools, they risk opening a vacuum of influence into the community, even when efforts are made to lessen the impact. Chicago is trying to respond to parental concerns about safety. Philadelphia, for its part, just won a $730,000 grant to address school climate. The state's Republican governor, Tom Corbett, said earlier this week that the state would offer some help, too (though implicitly with strings attached). Philadelphia has a $304 million deficit, however, so cuts are probably coming nevertheless.

And it's hard to fix school climate problems when you cut the people who are hired to fix school climate problems.

Image: Rousemary Vega, center, and two unidentified men occupy a classroom at the Jean de Lafayette Elementary School to protest the closing of the school during the final day of school on June 19 in Chicago. Lafayette is one of 50 schools scheduled to close as a cost cutting and consolidation measure by the Chicago Board of Education. —Scott Eisen/AP

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