Improving School Climate: A Systematic Approach

Conference News Online – 2013

By Andrew Buchheit

In “Improving School Climate from the Inside Out,” an interactive, two-hour session at the NAESP Annual Conference, Brian Perkins shared five factors that impact education quality and performance:

  1. Qualities of the teacher;
  2. Effectiveness of the leader;
  3. Class size;
  4. Early childhood experience; and
  5. School climate.

School success has traditionally been measured by standardized tests alone. These tests, according to Perkins, tell you some things about how a school is doing, but they don't tell you everything—especially not about the climate of a school. Perkins, director of the Urban Education Leaders program at Teacher's College Columbia University, developed a process to help schools gather and use school climate data.  

As school principals, we all recognize the importance of building and maintaining a positive school climate in order to ensure all our students are able and ready to learn to their fullest potential. Like many of you, this has been an area of interest and reflection for me for many years since I became a principal, and especially once I opened a new school two years ago. As my school community moves into its third year, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the different components, procedures, and traditions we have put in place that have shown to impact our school climate. I was especially intrigued about Perkins’ process to assess the climate of a school.

Perkins began this session by sharing a concise, practical, and illuminating definition of school climate.

“School climate,” he said, “is the learning environment created through the interaction of human relationships, physical setting, and psychological atmosphere.”

If school climate can be created, he noted, it can also be destroyed when the key components of human relationships, physical setting, and psychological atmosphere are not nurtured. For example, Perkins reminded attendees what can happen if the psychological atmosphere of a school is not one of trust: Students who feel disliked or disrespected by teachers may display cognitive maladjustment behaviors and shut down or act defiant toward teachers.

With school climate such an important factor, Perkins explained it is important to have a process to analyze the climate of a school and to correct any identified concerns. To help with this work, he created specific steps to improve school climate, which he calls the Climate Improvement Process, or CLIP.

Diagnosing Your School Climate

CLIP’s first step is to quantitatively gather data about your school climate. You can use a climate inventory that Perkins developed, which is also available as an app. The American School Climate Inventory contains 50 research-based indicators that can give an objective snapshot of a specific school’s climate. The app calculates your scores automatically, and you can take pictures to document corresponding areas of the inventory, such as student work displayed in the hallway. 

Next, Perkins recommends administering surveys to gather qualitative data and additional information. Perkins developed surveys for different stakeholders called “Where We Learn,” “Where We Teach,” and “What We Think.”

Next Steps

The second step in CLIP is to formulate a plan. Based on the data from the inventory and the surveys, identify activities to use to help improve the areas of concern. Also, identify which resources (financial, human, administrative, and miscellaneous) are needed for each activity. Then, implement the program and evaluate its impact.

This session took the “soft data” usually associated with school climate and put it in the context of an objective, clinical, and systematic improvement process. In addition, the American School Climate Inventory app Perkins developed could be a valuable tool for administrators and schools to easily and effectively assess the climate of a school.

Andrew Buchheit is principal of T. Clay Wood Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia.


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