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Building Healthy School Climate Is a Priority

A bunch of fourth-graders at Washington Elementary School are determined to make sure that their classmates treat one another with compassion and respect.

They are so determined, in fact, that they have been giving up precious recess time to meet as the “Stop Bullying Club.”

“You should put your energy into other things, like art or music or even gym,” said Megan McGuire, a member the club,  after she and some classmates presented anti-bullying posters to younger students at a school assembly Friday morning.

Added Na’Zariyah DeLemos: “Instead of bullying, you can make more friends. And if you have your feelings hurt, you should talk to your teacher or a parent.”

Washington holds monthly assemblies as part of its multi-faceted strategy to ensure a positive school climate, said Principal Jim Collin.

Collin noted that while Washington students are expected to learn a great deal, fundamental skills such as “how to interact, how to play together” cannot be overlooked..

Superintendent Matt Geary, who was at Friday’s event along with a few dozen parents, concurred.

Geary said that, throughout the district, a variety of strategies are being used to promote positive school climate.

For example, he noted that elementary schools have introduced a new “social thinking’ curriculum, designed to empower students by helping them understand not just how to behave but why respectful behavior is important.

In addition, the district has also been working with Ross Greene, a renowned author and consultant with expertise working with behaviorally challenging children.

“He’s all about ‘Kids do well if they can,’” Geary said.

That’s different, Geary said, from the belief  that some students are intentionally disruptive because they want to be.

By personalizing students’ learning, and listening to them, both engagement and behavior improve, Geary said. “We have to include students in the process,” he said.

Increased emphasis on school climate is hardly unique to Manchester. Districts throughout the state are making changes in part because of recent legislation that has made it more difficult to simply suspend students who misbehave.

Throughout the state, more than 1,200 children under the age of seven were given at least one day of ‘out-of-school” suspension two years ago, leading to legislation that has restricted such a punishment to only egregious cases.

“In general, suspensions are not good for kids,” Geary said, “and even when necessary, the preference is to keep kids in school.”

There’s an especially novel approach being used in Manchester that officials hope brings a level of equanimity to the schools.

Patricia Lavey, a  retired teacher and certified yoga instructor, has been visiting a few schools including Washington working with both students and staff on what are called “mindfulness exercises.”

Said Geary: “ We want people to be calm and reflective.”

One more step Manchester has taken to improve school climate: The district created a classroom at the high school for select elementary school students who might benefit from an alternative learning environment that provides more  hands-on activities and personalized attention.

Collin, who is in his first year as principal at Washington, is a veteran educator who has also worked in Suffield, Watertown, New Britain and West Hartford

Manchester kids, he said, are just like kids everywhere else. And the challenges, he said, are the same everywhere.

“We stress that we want the kids to be self-aware, and to be aware of the group,” Collin said.

Washington uses the acronym ‘GROW’ to helps students stay focused and grounded. It stands for:

  • Great choices

  • Reach for your best effort

  • Open to new learning

  • We support each other

Fourth-grader Cheyenne Navikas and her fellow club members say the GROW assemblies, the posters and the emphasis on school culture are paying dividends.

They say they are seeing  students treating one another differently and becoming more empathetic.

“They are following our directions,” Cheyenne said.

Manchester Public Schools 45 North School St, Manchester, CT 06042

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