Strengthening School Climate through Inclusion

Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education has been partnering with several Democracy Schools across the Chicago metropolitan area for the past two years to develop and implement strategies to strengthen school climate through inclusion. This cohort of schools worked closely with Loyola University to identify an intervention that each school wanted to explore and develop and implement an action plan and support each other to move forward. In our final session of the Civics Across the Curriculum series on April 22nd, 2021, participating schools shared their perspectives and learnings from the experience. View a recording of the session.

To begin the session, Jon Schmidt, Clinical Assistant Faculty, Loyola University, provided some contextual framing for the cohort’s work by sharing components of multicultural education from James Banks:

  • Inclusive curriculum
  • Equity pedagogy
  • Empowering school culture
  • Knowledge construction
  • Prejudice reduction

Billson Rasavongxay, Social Studies Dept Chair/Teacher at Hinsdale Central High School, related their experience (as well as Hinsdale South High School) as they examined their Social Studies curriculum for its inclusion of diverse narratives — specifically for people of color. Their first step was to survey their students and collect their perspectives on the current US History program. Loyola University created an instrument to get specific feedback on how marginalized groups were represented in their US history course. The responses clearly noted that, for many students in the school, their stories were not represented in the curriculum. This provided a path for the team working on this issue: (1) create a more inclusive US History experience for their students and (2) provide training and support for teachers to navigate this change. Some of this work has already begun, as teachers have envisioned a US History curriculum that moves away from a chronological approach, and instead focuses on thematic units such as Policing/Power, Immigration/Citizenship, and Income/Wealth.

When Grayslake Central High School engaged in the Democracy Schools renewal process a couple of years ago, they scrutinized their student survey data. Social Studies Department Chair, Jason Janczak, remarked that at first glance, it appeared that students were very positive about the culture and curriculum at the school, but as the team dug deeper and looked at disaggregated data, there was a realization that significant needs were not being met—especially among black and Latinx students. In order to understand this further, Loyola University interviewed students for more feedback. The Grayslake Central team also sought out views from the community about the Social Studies curriculum. This led to a team of teachers and staff organizing to examine culturally responsive teaching — reading Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain while looking for opportunities to weave some of this thinking into the curriculum and pedagogy of their school.

Curie High School has had many efforts already in place to address equity. However, there was a feeling that this could be done in a way that would be more efficient and touch more spaces in the school. Assistant Principal Homero Penuelasexplained how the student focus groups that were convened by Loyola were instrumental in allowing the school leadership to see that merging the Equity work with the School and Culture work would focus the efforts more precisely. Curie’s approach to creating and empowering an inclusive school culture consisted of:

  • Combining the two teams (Equity and School/Culture) and creating a singular vision that included four pillars: Student Voice, Community, Cultural responsiveness, and SEL
  • Providing PD for teachers using Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
  • Continuing use of student focus groups to further respond to feedback
  • Creating circle discussion protocols to hear from as many students as possible.

In its position as a neighborhood school as well as a selective program school, Senn High School saw the opportunity to give students greater access to programs that met their specific needs by strengthening student voice. David Gregg, who is the IBCP Coordinator, discussed how students were given additional opportunities to inform decisions about their education and engagement in academic courses. Teaching staff directly provided information about the different programs that were available to students, facilitated student focus groups to provide more feedback to staff, and created a Career Exploration Day so that students could have exposure to various career pathways. Another way that student voice resonated during this past year was in a staff initiative that was considering some changes to grading practices. Many students also were interested in the book, Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman, and became “powerfully and significantly” involved in the initiative: they created and administered their own student survey on the topic, analyzed that data, presented it to the entire staff at a faculty meeting, and shared their willingness to do additional work to reform grading practices at their school.

To conclude the presentation, Sammie Burton, Program Coordinator with Loyola University, posed the question, “How has this work with inclusion impacted your thinking as you move forward? Panelists shared these thoughts:

  • Students need to find value in school, and we need to be asking them what they need to do this.
  • Students are often the best evaluators of what is culturally relevant, and we need to listen to their perspectives.
  • The visibility of students is rapidly changing, as they learn to value their own voices.
  • Progress comes in fits and starts; it is not an even trajectory.

We are so inspired and grateful to hear the perspectives from this cohort. Their thoughtful work in this area, their willingness to share with and support each other, and their chronicling of the journey provide examples for all who are interested in moving ahead with developing a more inclusive school culture.