At the June 4 meeting of the District 65 School Board, Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services and Biz Lindsay-Ryan, a consultant, summarized the work being done to develop School Climate Teams.

 Ms. Bartz said the teams are being developed as part the District’s five-year strategic plan approved by the Board in March 2015. “A significant part of the strategic plan was to develop positive and supportive school climates for each of our schools,” she said.

The goal is to “Ensure all District 65 schools have positive school climates built upon clear and equitable policies and practices where all members of the school community feel emotionally and physically safe, included and accepted.”

School Climate Teams were established on a phased-in basis at the District’s schools over the last three years. At this point, there is a team established at each school, but they are at different stages in their development.

Ms. Bartz said the District has developed an integrated school climate framework, which is intended to align PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports), social and emotional learning, restorative practices, and culturally responsive teaching. She emphasized that it was important that the School Climate Teams keep in mind “how our practices reflect cultural biases and how to address them.”

Ms. Bartz added that there are various practices or tools that are available through each of the four programs or initiatives that may be used to improve school climate. Some examples are:

• PBIS: explicit modeling of expectations, positive feedback, Tier 1, 2, and 3 interventions

• Social and Emotional Learning: welcoming/inclusive rituals, engaging practices, instruction on social and emotional learning, explicit modeling and school-wide integration

• Restorative Practices: class meetings, community circles, sharing circles, restorative/peace circles

• Culturally Responsive Teaching: humanizing relationships, building resilient and academic mindset, pushing against the dominant narrative

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said the District provides training on a wide range of topics, including improving relationships, enhancing equity and inclusion, exploring behavior and discipline, engaging faculty in improving school climate, and navigating through difficult conversations, and strategic planning.

One thing that the climate action teams are looking at is how to improve  relationships, which include student to student, staff to student, staff to staff, and school to family relationships.

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said one thing they have found is, “Morale of staff affects all of the capabilities of school climate. Schools that have the lowest morale or have challenges in their staff relationships really struggle to hear feedback and critique on how they can improve their staff’s student relationships. It they don’t feel respected, they have a hard time hearing that feedback. If they don’t feel like they belong, it was hard to foster that belongingness for students.”

The District provides models, tool kits and training, said Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, but the schools identify issues to focus on and customize their plan to figure out how best to meet the needs of students in their school.

Ms. Bartz added, “The schools really have an incredible amount of agency in what they want to prioritize and what are the building’s specific issues and being able to think through what are the priorities and time lines.

“The school climate team identifies and takes a look at what’s going on within their building in terms of, at this point, relationships and/or safety. So if they see there’s some problems, maybe one of the tools they may want to implement is restorative practices, or maybe they really need to change the way they’re doing PBIS.

“So the team itself is assessing, looking at where they have issues, where there’s maybe problems in relationships between staff. They sit and study these issues and then develop some tools or plans for how they really want to make that change. And that’s hard work. It really takes time to sit and think and assess and then develop and implement a plan that can make a difference in terms of your school environment, said Ms. Bartz.

“It’s really exciting work, and we have some incredible things going on in some of our teams,” she added.

“We’re trying to go wide and deep,” said Ms. Lindsay-Ryan. “It’s going to take time to have all the changes we would like to see.”

One of the things Ms. Bartz highlighted from a staff survey was that 85% of the staff felt that racial equity is an important consideration in the school climate team discussions.

Ms. Bartz also noted that some of the accomplishments cited by school climate teams in the survey were, “We have started having more productive conversations about equity. … Equity is being discussed more often when making decisions. … We also began peace circles. … The climate team has explicitly isolated race in nam[ing] the root causes of disparities that exist within our building.”

“This is really hitting what we wanted to do in terms of developing the climate within buildings and having people think together in a considered fashion about their work with young people and with each other,” said Ms. Bartz.

This coming year, said Ms. Bartz, some of the things the District will be  working on include training the Climate Action Teams in culturally responsive teaching; developing a social and emotional learning curriculum for use by general education teachers in second, third and fifth grades; adding a service component to advisory 2.0 in sixth grade; examining how office discipline referrals are being made and ensuring they are being done in a way to support students, rather than being punitive; and conducting training at all schools on how to facilitate sharing circles, responsive circles, and restorative circles.

Superintendent Paul Goren highlighted two aspects of the work. “One is that alignment matters.” He said aligning school climate work with PBIS, social and emotional learning, restorative practices, and culturally responsive teaching is “really, really important, and the alignment with our school improvement process is really important.”

His second point was that “relationships matter” – student to student, student to staff, staff to staff, and school to family. “That is so essential, first and foremost, making sure our kids are safe and feel like they have a safe place where they can learn, a safe place where they can explore, also a safe place where if something’s going wrong, they have a voice to go and articulate that.”

He added that it was essential that adults have positive relationships with other adults in the building.

“Part of what we need to be working on in the year and years ahead is on how to continue to stress that relationships matter. They matter in the lives of our children,” said Dr. Goren.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...