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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 1

Creating a School Where People Like to Be

What are the elements that make up school climate? What does a school with a positive climate look like, and how does it operate? A high school in Utah provides some answers.

Improved school climate is an ideal, a goal to pursue. A school that claims that it has a perfect school climate is myopic, for improved school climate is something that professional educators are working toward—always. Working toward improved school climate means that dedicated individuals are making conscious efforts to enhance and enrich the culture and conditions in the school so that teachers can teach better and students can learn more.
The need to improve school climate is obvious. Many observers have characterized present conditions in schools in discouraging terms. Jere Brophy (1998) has observed that among other things, compulsory attendance, lack of choice in curriculum, and concerns about evaluation contribute to a less than desirable climate from the student perspective: "It's hard to just enjoy an activity . . . when the activity is compulsory and your performance will be evaluated, especially if you fear that efforts will not be successful" (p. 12). Goodlad (1994) has noted the isolation of principals and teachers and the need for people and resources to get closer to students. Darling-Hammond (1997) affirms that schools really are much alike, regardless of where they are. Mandates and regulations govern many school systems in ways that make schools impersonal, indifferent, and generally insensitive to the individuals within them. Education appears to be a limited experience that takes place within a box called a classroom.
Few voices contradict these indictments, for they describe schools that we have known and experienced as a supervisor of student teachers and as a principal. Occasionally, however, we may visit a school that reveals a consistent and constant effort to create a desirable culture, a climate of support and encouragement, of warmth and acceptance—a place where students and teachers like to be. Recently a group of prospective teachers returned from visiting such a school and proclaimed, "That was a good school. You could tell that the students liked to be there. You knew that the teachers were good, genuine people." These students were speaking of Orem High School in Orem, Utah, a school that we are looking at not as a model so much as an example that will help us distill the characteristics of a positive school climate. The administrators and teachers at Orem agree that although they have not yet reached the goal of an ideal school climate, they are working toward it.
Orem High School is a place, as Lightfoot (1983) has described, where students are seen as people worthy of respect. It is a place that seeks to provide a safe environment for building student-teacher relationships, a place that offers a sense of security and belongingness. Its purpose and goals—public and implicit—stress the ongoing construction of a good place to be. Challenges? Yes! Problems? Numerous! But Orem is focused on becoming a positive place for teaching and learning.
The school has approximately 1,600 students in grades 10 through 12 and a faculty of 75 teachers, counselors, and administrators. It has experienced significant changes as the community has evolved from a semiagricultural area with fruit orchards and farm fields to a more densely populated, largely white middle-class suburban area with an expanding economic base. A World War II-era steel mill still operates within the area, along with several computer firms, including Novell and Corel WordPerfect. Orem High School faces problems and challenges that are typical of similar schools today. But it is different from many others in its commitment to becoming an attractive and rewarding place to teach and to learn.
Purkey and Novak (1996) present a framework for looking at how schools can become "invitational" by focusing on five elements: places, policies, programs, processes, and people. Orem High School provides an example of how each of these elements contributes to the creation of a positive school climate.

The Personality of Place

Some observers have noted that schools have difficulty expressing any kind of personality because they are so much alike. They look alike and, some suggest, they even smell alike. Orem High School strives to appear different. Subtle messages tell students that this environment is not sterile, empty, or lifeless. There are places for students to sit, relax, and enjoy the school. Open spaces with casual furniture are typical, and pictures and flowers provide decoration. Instead of athletic trophies, a beautiful aquarium is the first thing people see when they enter the building.
Unlike the typical gray or tan school hallways, the halls at Orem are accented with the school colors—blue and gold. Quotes from faculty members adorn the halls, which also provide space for recognizing student achievements and special events. The school's Golden Tiger mascot inspires hallway slogans such as "A Stripe Above the Rest" and "Roar Forever."
Courtyards and foyers are places for talking, for classes, and for activities beyond the classroom. The Skybrary was constructed to turn a cloistered library into an open, window-lit facility that looks out onto a courtyard where science and art classes sometimes meet. Science classes also have an arboretum on the school grounds.
The principal's office at Orem looks more like an antique store or a museum than a traditional, stuffy administrative office. The walls display baseball caps, signs with witty sayings, and an antique post office call box. An old soft drink machine sits in one corner and a set of golf clubs in another. A typical reaction of a student coming in for the first time is "Gee, what a neat place!" Being sent to the principal's office is almost a treat!

Positive Policies

Sometimes schools appear to be arbitrary, autocratic, insensitive entities that function without regard for the individual, whoever that might be. Although rules and policies are necessary, sometimes they exist because of tradition and ritual rather than because they promote or encourage an effective school.
Orem High School consciously tries to establish policies that encourage and permit rather than restrict or direct. The question that is continually asked is, What is the best practice? Teachers and administrators try to ensure that the policies are clear and understandable and are explained to parents and students in an appropriate manner.
When developing policies, it helps to remember some catchphrases of an effective school: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained," "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission," and "You never know until you try." Doing worthwhile things in schools sometimes involves a bit of risk taking, and people often resist risk and change—even change for the better. Resistance is unacceptable, however, if it comes from an attitude that says "we've always done it that way," or if the status quo is simply comfortable and safe.
In a school with a positive climate, policies encourage and seek a win/win result. Covey (1989) describes win/win as "a frame of mind and heart that constantly seeks mutual benefit in all human interactions." A win/win solution means that "all parties feel good about the decision and feel committed to the action plan. Win/Win sees life as a cooperative, not a competitive arena" (p. 207). This is difficult to achieve, but it is a worthy and desirable goal. Policies that reflect win/win convince everyone to work toward favorable resolutions for all. Covey later notes that teachers can establish grading systems using agreed-on criteria and can encourage students to cooperate in productive ways to perform according to those criteria.

Attractive Programs

Schools are accused of offering students few options and choices. Purkey and Novak (1996) describe how students felt "disinvited in school" because they were consistently overlooked. No one encouraged them to participate in activities, and they seldom related to faculty and staff. Teachers returned papers with no more than a letter grade and didn't seem to notice students' absences. "These students suffered from a 'caring disability'; not enough educators cared to invite them to participate in school life" (p. 14).
At Orem High School, administrators and teachers work hard to provide a variety of innovative and attractive programs. For example, an interdisciplinary program called Unified Studies includes credits in social studies, science, language arts, and recreation. A skiing trip, a bird-watching expedition, and a community service project supplement a curriculum that includes writing, reading, and decision making. The program encourages students to integrate and use the information they receive.
Rigorous academic courses taught by excellent teachers have led to positive results in district and state assessment programs. The curriculum includes advanced placement offerings, concurrent enrollment in community college and high school courses, telecommunication courses, cooperative programs with community organizations and businesses, and special electives. Students are taught that academic performance is a worthwhile goal, and various incentives encourage their efforts. The school recently held a "4.0 Party" for students who maintained an exceptional aca-demic record. Ten percent of the student body was eligible to participate.
The open display of student talent throughout the building encourages participation in nonacademic pursuits as well. The cafeteria exhibits artwork that students can view during their lunch period. The foyer often features photographic displays. The ballroom dance group and the jazz ensemble practice in the hallways. Students in the welding class create artistic works for the Skybrary courtyard.
A plethora of programs and activities provides options and alternatives for students. Choices are real and are increasing. Participation in activities such as "We the People," a nationally sponsored competition on the Constitution, and "Project Literacy," a school-based reading program, reaches out to all students who wish to be involved.

Participatory Processes

In many schools, decision making is unilateral or arbitrary. Even in more inclusive environments, it is unlikely that all individuals will be equally satisfied. However, Orem High School has initiated efforts that encourage decision making characterized by participation, cooperation, and collaboration. Students are encouraged to take responsibility, to be involved, and to speak with their own voices.
Glasser (1997) encourages "choice theory"—processes that teach people that their behavior can be controlled only by themselves. According to Glasser, individuals need to belong, to have power, to have freedom, and to have fun. Orem High attends to these needs in the way it operates. It fosters a sense of belonging by stressing group and collaborative effort. It recognizes power as the ability to do things—the comfortable assertion of competence and capabilities—and knows that powerless individuals feel confined and restricted. Freedom means that one can make choices; options mean alternatives. Orem High encourages this openness and trust, both with students and with teachers. Finally, people are more active and contributive when they are having fun. Orem believes that school and work can be pleasurable. Joy, a sense of thrill and satisfaction, should accompany work. Unfun places collect casualties. A school with humor is OK.

People as Partners

Perhaps the most important element in a school with a positive climate is the people. This is the one resource that is guaranteed to make a difference. Investment in people results in effective change.
One of the ways that Orem High School invests in people is through participation in the National Network for Education Renewal, a change and innovation program directed by John Goodlad. The network has encouraged a university-school partnership program with Brigham Young University that, for the past 10 years, has encouraged true collaboration and cooperation. The school and the university regularly share resources, expertise, and experiences. A professor became a high school teacher—not for a day or a week but for the entire academic year. Another professor provided assistance with, and an evaluation of, the Unified Studies Program. Paul Cox, a world-recognized scientist prominent in biology, worked with Orem's biology teacher to develop a unique and enriching science program that included the development of a wetlands project at Diamond Fork Canyon. An administrative preparation program places administrative interns in the school each year. These individuals receive mentoring while completing their clinical administrative experience. Brigham Young University has changed its student teaching program at Orem High School, which is now a professional development school. Instead of traditional student teachers, cohort teachers stay for longer periods of time, integrate into faculty roles, participate in school and extracurricular activities, complete required professional development courses as part of the clinical experience, and cooperate with clinical teachers.
In an associates program, teachers at Orem voluntarily gather for discussions on educational reform. The strength of the program is that it is teacher centered and teacher directed. The teachers meet during the school day, when the cohort student teachers are in their classrooms. Members of Orem's faculty and administration have also participated in a consortium with other educators dealing with reform, renewal, restructuring, and change. The consortium has provided opportunities for retreats, professional development seminars, and on-site visits to schools undergoing change.
The cohort program and the associates program provide both the time and the structure for individuals to become part of a true learning community. Keefe and Howard (1997) acknowledge that it takes time to build a learning organization, but they suggest thatThe most basic step is to cultivate and support an environment in the school that is risk-free and conducive to learning. School leaders must take time to think and reflect, to develop and update strategic plans, to assess the utility of current school programs, and to design new structures and procedures. (p. 43)At Orem High, the cohort program and the associates program give people time to think and to reflect.
In addition to these major investments in people, Orem recognizes individuals in a variety of subtle but significant ways. Pictures of students appear frequently in the halls, and recognizing "students of the day" is a regular practice. Recognition and rewards tell students it is OK to succeed and to be appreciated. Teachers are rewarded, too, with "eats and treats," faculty drawings, and teacher appreciation events. A Hall of Fame display recognizes distinguished alumni and contributors to the school, and partnerships with business and community groups are highlighted. This effective public relations program connects the school to the community.
The efforts of the staff at Orem High School show that working toward the goal of a positive climate can make a real difference for both teachers and students. Conscious decisions can have powerful effects on daily experiences. If we choose to make schools more attractive and inviting, we can begin by looking at how we can change the places, policies, programs, processes, and people within those schools.
Einstein once remarked, "Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing." We know, or are capable of knowing, how to create schools that have a positive and attractive climate. The challenge is to continually and consciously labor to achieve the goal—to make schools places where people like to be.

Brophy, J. (1998). Motivating students to learn. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The right to learn. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Glasser, W. (1997). A new look at school failure and school success. Kappan, 78, 596-602.

Goodlad, J. I. (1994). What schools are for. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Keefe, J. W., & Howard, E. R. (1997). The school as a learning organization. NASSP Bulletin, 81, 35-44.

Lightfoot, S. L. (1983). The good high school. New York: Basic Books.

Purkey, W. W., & Novak, J. M. (1996). Inviting school success. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

J. Merrell Hansen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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