Federal education conference emphasizes the importance of school climate

by Lara Maupin, Director SSOC/NSOC

Kristen Pelster, Principal at Ridgewood Middle School in MissouriJoe Mazzola and I attended the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools annual conference this week. We were quite pleased to see the Department’s emphasis on how school climate can enhance the conditions for learning reflected in the selection of keynote speakers and workshops. Researchers and practitioners shared how improving school climate can improve academic achievement and reduce bullying.

We were especially thrilled that the Department asked dynamic principal Kristen Pelster of Ridgewood Middle School in Missouri to be the kickoff keynote speaker. Kristen told her school’s powerful story of transformation from the worst school in the district to National School of Character. How did they do it? Character education! By holding kids to high expectations and giving them the support they needed to meet those expectations, Ridgewood culture began to change. Over time, Kristen was able to empower her teachers and students. Without changing anything about how they taught academics, Ridgewood students improved academically. Of course, this is a story we know well at CEP. We see it repeated time and time again in our National Schools of Character. But it was gratifying to see over 1500 conference participants from around the country “get it” too.

Throughout the conference, we heard the message repeated:  Our kids deserve to be safe in school. Once they are safe, they can learn. We can do better. We know that our nation’s teachers are working hard for kids. They simply need our support – and they need tools which will enable them to build positive classroom cultures. Character education provides these tools, without adding “one more thing” or taking time away from academics. As researchers at the conference confirmed, we now know that when we focus on the social, emotional, and character development of students, we gain “time on task,” which results in academic improvement.

As Kristen said when she was asked how could she spend time on character, “How could I not?”