Speaking the Same Language on Positive School Climate and Culture

Positive School Climate and Whole Child EducationI’m known as one of those people who lives, breathes, eats, and sleeps her work.

If you’re a friend of mine, you likely have a pretty good understanding of terms such as “whole child education”; social-emotional learning”; and “positive school climate and culture” — even if you’re not an educator by profession. Chances are that I probably gave you a rundown of all the supporting data, research, and statistics while I asked you to pass the butter dish during dinner! (Hey, at least I feed my friends while I’m explaining how the likelihood for academic success is greater when schools create safe, compassionate learning environments!)

So when a friend emailed me recently, to tell me that she heard a school board member being interviewed on the radio, I was more than really touched because she said “Molly, she’s singing your song right now, and I thought you’d like to know!”

I did want to know. That school board member happened to be Jessie Ryan, first vice president of the Sacramento City Unified School District Board. She was a guest on a recent episode of 1A, the new public radio’s show that explores timely issues across policy, politics, and technology.

Ryan was speaking on a topic that she called “heartbreaking”: How fear of deportation is affecting the children of undocumented immigrants who attend Sacramento Unified.

(Quick stats on Sacramento Unified: It educates approximately 43,000 students, 35,000 of whom are students of color. Forty-eight different languages are spoken by children who attend.)

Ryan’s comments spoke both to my heart and my head—about how issues inside as well as out of school affect our children’s ability to learn. Comments such as these outlined the uphill battle that educators in her district are facing:

  • Sacramento educators are seeing a rise in hate speech and fear at levels that are greater than ever before since the election.
  • Children cannot learn in an environment of fear. Educators, she said, have to do everything they can to make their students feel safe.
  • Children, as young as those in elementary schools, have been reported as being in tears over worries that they will be deported.

What was most powerful about Ryan’s comments was that she didn’t just outline the problems, she presented what the school system has been and continues to do to remove the obstacles that impact their students’ ability to learn. And she placed credit where credit is due: She gave a shout out to the teachers, whom she called the “first responders/ground warriors” who are meeting the needs of their students on a daily basis. As educators, Ryan said, they have a “moral obligation” to do what they are doing. She acknowledged the district’s “incredible partners” in local and state government, whom she said affirm over and over that Sacramento is a sanctuary city– and that educators and policymakers work in partnership to protect their immigrant communities.

So what is Sacramento Unified doing to ensure they have a positive school climate and culture?

  • They declared themselves a “safe haven” school district. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents are not allowed on school campuses without signed authorization from the district superintendent.
  • They reinforced a standing, on-the-books policy of zero tolerance for hate speech, or a sense of marginalization — of immigrants, of students of color, of those who identify as LGBTQ, for example.
  • School leaders are working with local community partners to help empower immigrant families with information so they understand their rights.

The ultimate goal of all this work, Ryan said, was that all children are able to “come to school each day welcome and ready to learn.”

Unfortunately, this story has become common in recent months with school districts around the country facing both increased anxiety and increased hate-based incidents. I’m glad that districts such as Sacramento model the way for others. I’m glad that my friends listen to me “evangelize” about the importance of safe, supportive schools and creating a positive school climate and culture and that they recognize when other people are singing from the same songbook as I.

I’m grateful that I have the privilege to do this work.

Thank you, first responders, for not only educating all children as your moral obligation, but for protecting our most vulnerable students.

What do you need to help children feel safe and supported inside your learning environments? How can you create a positive school climate and culture? I invite you to explore our website to see which free resources could be most helpful. And I welcome you to always reach out with questions. Contact me with your stories, suggestions, and ideas at mmccloskey@operationrespect.org.


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