Illustration by Daniel Vasconcellos
Get Under the Hood
Huntington High School located in New York was faced with a dilemma common for many schools across the country: In order to better understand school climate, it knew it needed to make changes, but it didn't know what changes or where to begin. Dealing with the day to day of running a school left little time for teachers and administrators to collect data or even reflect on what data should be collected.
Last fall, the school turned to the Ed School's Making Caring Common initiative. Carmela Leonardi, the principal at the time, had attended a couple of other professional development programs at the Ed School and had found them helpful.
"We knew that if we wanted to make changes, we needed to know what direction we needed to move in," she says. "That's important."
The Making Caring Common folks, through their new Caring Schools Initiative, provided Leonardi and her team with a free survey for students and staff that would allow them to "get under the hood" of the school's culture, says Senior Lecturer Rick Weissbourd, co-director of Making Caring Common. In particular, the survey was designed to help them learn how students and staff perceived the school environment and who, besides family, was in their circle of concern. The survey also allowed them to hear from the quiet students, the ones who normally wouldn't express their opinions. "You have to get data on kids to guide your decisions," Weissbourd says.
Once the survey was done, Huntington and the other 50 middle and high schools that took part in the initiative were given reports in clear, accessible language that summarized the results, plus a set of resources and customized strategies that teachers and principals could use to make changes based on their results.
Last spring, Caring Schools participants were then invited to attend a three-day professional development program on Appian Way that allowed them to really pull apart their survey results and figure out how to best apply the information in their schools, says Trisha Anderson, a research project manager for Making Caring Common. "We really wanted them to walk away with an action plan."
For the team at Huntington, the survey, which was given to more than 1,000 students and 130 teachers, revealed an issue that did not surprise social studies teacher Ken Donovan: empathy.
"My classes regularly discuss issues of justice, equity, and the like throughout our curriculum. While I find students are generally strong in recognizing alternative perspectives in an academic way — for example, analyzing different arguments on why the American Revolution took place — I think there is a shortfall when it comes to empathizing with people outside their demographic," he says, adding that he saw the same pattern at other high schools where he has taught in the past. "As we discussed immigration, racial profiling, minimum wage, and other controversial issues, I found that students tended to stick to thoughts and explanations that fit the framework with which they have grown up. I feel this has significant consequences for creating a caring environment in the school, but also in the larger community, state, country, and world."
Bonnie Guarino, an English teacher at Huntington, says the Caring Schools recommendations indicated that one way for them to improve empathy was to improve communication between teachers and students — even something as simple as teachers asking students anonymously to share more about themselves.
"Anonymously, students complete index cards stating 'the things I wish my teacher knew about me,'" she says. "This is in addition to the profiles most teachers have students fill out in the beginning of the year. The anonymity encourages students to share things that are important to them, but which are often difficult to say. This way the teacher has a better sense of some of the underlying issues in the classroom."
Donovan says that this is just one "low-burden" exercise they learned about that could easily be done in a school that doesn't have to cost a lot — or anything, other than time.
"Very often, when schools roll out programs to address perceived problems or change cultural direction, there may be an overhaul of practice, the purchase of prepackaged materials, outside consultants, and the like. That really isn't the case here," he says of the survey recommendations. "The institute stressed lowburden changes that could be made. This makes it much more practical in a world where teachers may feel overwhelmed by the various demands of the day and year."
Brenden Cusack, the new principal at Huntington who attended the Caring Schools sessions as assistant principal, plans on trying out another low-burden suggestion: creating lunch discussions between faculty, staff, and students of all grades and all participation levels.
"The focus will be to have discussions about our school, the climate, the concept of ethical responsibility, and what it means for us as a learning community," he says, starting with topics suggested in the survey results. "The intent here is for these regular meetings to serve as a platform for conversation that would not be limited to students in leadership positions, but would also include kids with a variety of social and academic backgrounds from all walks of life." In time, Cusack hopes that students and teachers will feel more ownership over the process as they begin to generate their own discussion topics. "I feel that the very process of holding these talks will promote a deeper understanding among our students and between the students and our faculty. The subtext herein, of course, is that everyone's voice matters and needs to be heard on a personal level."