Educators,community discuss ways to strengthen school climate and culture

Staff Writer

Over the last week, 100 education advocates, families, educators, elected leaders, representatives from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and the Illinois State Board of Education, gathered in locations across the city for problem-solving forums to discuss ways in which schools can support students impacted by violence, poverty, and trauma.

Educators for Excellence – Chicago (E4E–Chicago), a teacher-led organization hosted four community forums in Hyde Park, Austin, Lincoln Square and Little Village, on Wednesday, Nov. 8 and Thursday, Nov. 9.

On Wednesday, attendees convened at the Chicago Theological Seminary, 1407 E. 60th St., where they discussed school climate and culture, social-emotional learning, trauma, restorative justice/discipline poverty related to their experiences in education.

In their policy paper, E4E says that School Climate and culture is a set of values and beliefs that create the foundation for practices, behaviors, and relationships within a school. A school’s climate is reflective of culture, mood, feeling and morale with classrooms and the overall school building.

Social-emotional learning, as defined by E4E “is the process which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

The forums came to be based on recommendations from E4E’s Chicago teacher-authored policy paper, “Sounding the Alarm: Building Climate & Culture Our Students Need” that was released in June.

Shayna Boyd and Yazmin White Mitchell are two of the 18-member teacher policy team at E48-Chicago that authored the policy paper. The mission of the policy team is to “encourage proactive school climate.”
Both Boyd and Mitchell were present at the meeting in Hyde Park and acted as facilitators for their small groups.

The paper includes recommendations to improve the social, emotional well being of Chicago’s students. The recommendations outlined in the paper are referred to as A.C.C.E.S.S., (access, compile, coordinate, execute, support and sustain).

“Identifying the needs of the school and being able to pull the resources that are readily available within that building, network, district or other surrounding districts,” Mitchell said. “Before any learning can exist there has to be a safe environment. Children have to feel safe. The environment has to be one that is open to learning.”

“When you don’t have resources in place in order to support these kids that falls to the teacher time and time again, and so the teacher is becoming not just the teacher but also the social worker, the counselor, and sometimes the mom,” Boyd said.

Boyd is a 3rd – 5th grade gifted children’s teacher at Western Avenue Elementary School in Flossmoor, Ill., and was previously a CPS teacher at Oglesby Elementary School, which is located in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

Mitchell is a diverse learning teacher for 7th and 8th graders at CPS’ O’Keeffe School of Excellence in South Shore.

“So many of our kids are dealing with circumstances beyond their control,” Boyd said.

Those circumstances could involve violence within the communities in which they live, or their home-life said, Mitchell.

Homelessness is another issue that many CPS students are experiencing.

“Over 18,000 Chicago Public School students are homeless,” Mitchell said. “Their home environment impacts learning. We as educators have to have a safe welcoming learning environment to support all of those needs and that’s something that they don’t teach you in a classroom.”

Boyd is relatively new to teaching. She graduated from her teaching program four to five years ago. At that time she said there was no mention of social, emotional learning.

“We talked about classroom management, but not that you might possibly face issues that you’re going to have to rely on other support and it may not be easily solvable,” Boyd said. “I do not think that those resources were there to prepare me in the beginning and they’re definitely not there once you get in a situation.”

When Mitchell graduated in the ‘90s she said at the focus was more on the theory of education, how to teach core subjects like reading and math.

She noted that universities recognize that education looks different than it did 15-20 years ago but sees that they are making strides in attempting to address social, emotional learning. However, she still feels like most of the emphasis is on the theory of education.

The organization’s paper, “Sounding the Alarm” pinpoints ways for educators and stakeholders to access already existing resources to address circumstances that their students face today.

“A lot of the stuff [resources] it’s already out there, but I think it’s about making sure that it’s widely available and accessible that everyone knows that it’s there and everyone is able to implement it,” Boyd said.

E4E was founded by public school teachers and is made up of 25,000 educators. The organization aims to improve student learning and to elevate the teaching profession by identifying issues that impact schools and creating solutions to address those issues.