School Climate and Culture Contributes to Student Success

This week, Jim Larimore, chief officer; Lew Montgomery, program director; and I had the opportunity to attend the Des Moines Public Schools’ fourth annual Summit on School Climate & Culture. Educators and education-focused organizations from 22 states plus Iowa attended the two-day event. Total attendance was 2,500, including 1,500 Des Moines Public School employees. It was the first time the Center has been involved in the event, which is meant to create a space for educators’ professional development and to discuss best practices in school climate and culture.

“This event was started because we felt it was a vital for our teachers to receive the best professional development to support our students, families, and community,” said Bobbi Jo Sheridan, Des Moines Public Schools after-school coordinator and event committee member. “By hosting our own summit right here in Des Moines, we are able to benefit more staff than we would be able to if we had to travel somewhere. Des Moines is rich in diversity, culture, and knowledge so it was a perfect place to host this event. The goal is to have more participation and bring in a more diverse, well-rounded group of national and local presenters each year. As a district we are honored to host this summer and provide this wonderful opportunity. We cannot do it without partners like ACT.”

The summit focused on six major strands: Best practices in improving school climate; multi-tiered system of supports; equity; whole child health; stakeholder engagement; and leadership. Sessions were full of great resources, conversations, connections, and time to collaborate with colleagues.

“Educators play a profound role in closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement,” said Jim Larimore. “The Summit provided a great opportunity for the Center to speak directly with teachers and other educators about their needs and goals, which we can take into account as ACT seeks ways to operationalize the ACT Holistic Framework, and provide teachers and schools with insights and resources to help them improve school climate, build their students’ SEL (social and emotional learning) skills and awareness, and leverage student engagement to improve learning.”

During the conference, keynote presentations were given by Dr. Pedro Antonio Noguera, professor of education; University of California, Los Angeles; Dr. Bettina L. Love, associate professor of Educational Theory & Practice, University of Georgia; Brittany Packnett, activist, educator, writer; and Roberto Rivera, chief empowerment officer, 7 Mindsets. The common thread amongst all keynotes: not accepting what currently “is” in education and our schools today. We need to help all students, especially students of color, and close the opportunity gap. Speakers emphasized that everyone in the room has the opportunity to affect the change needed – and we all will be better off if we act on it.

The student perspective was also interwoven throughout the conference, in case you had forgotten “why” you were at the conference. It highlighted performances from Des Moines Public Schools students—from poets, to hip hop/break dancers, to singers, to seniors from the class of 2020 asking for teacher involvement in making their dreams come true via the BIG Dream Project. Their presence seemed welcomed by all and lightened up the room, since at times the conversations were deep and uncomfortable.

When asked what he took away from the event, Larimore said, “I was reminded how fortunate we are to have so many talented and committed educators working in our public schools. In spite of the challenges facing students, families, communities and schools, these dedicated people spent two beautiful summer days together learning how to create safe and inclusive learning environments for all of their students, how to recognize the implicit bias that affects us all, and how to continue to grow and improve as teachers, school counselors, school social workers, and administrators. I came away grateful and inspired.”

With great feedback buzzing in the room, and with the continued interest in this summit, next year looks to be yet another amazing opportunity to continue the conversation and the work. Stay tuned here for more information, as you won’t want to miss it!