The following was compiled from a press release sent by the Wilton Public Schools.

The State of Connecticut requires all schools to evaluate school climate as part of a comprehensive effort to improve school safety, and to ensure a positive social and emotional climate in all schools. As a nation, we have learned in recent years what common sense has always told us:  that learning happens best in safe, respectful schools.

Connecticut typically relies on student, teacher and parent surveys to understand what school climate is like in schools across the state. But Wilton schools are doing much more than surveys to understand and to work to improve school climate, respect and safety in all Wilton Schools.

Tomorrow, (Thursday, April 9) educators at Miller-Driscoll Elementary School will undertake one facet of a comprehensive school climate improvement initiative that began at the start of the new year, under assistant superintendent Dr. Charles Smith.

Nearly 400 children from grades K-2 will be sharing what they see, experience and know about school climate and the ways students treat each other on the bus, on the playground, in the hallways and in the lunchroom. They are participating in a unique program that has been designed by Dr. Bill Preble and the Center for School Climate and Learning that allows even the youngest students to voice their school climate concerns and share their experiences in order to make their schools better places for kids like themselves.

“This might be the first time that so many young students have had the opportunity to have their voices heard and to share their perceptions and experiences about school climate,” Preble says. “We know that student written surveys are not useful with such young children. So we developed this school climate research process to include young students using well-established ‘art-therapy’ techniques.”

Students in grades K-2 will be drawing four pictures of themselves:  on the bus, the playground, in the hallways, and at lunch. They will then sit down with their teachers, or with a team of 14 student researchers from New England College, who will ask the children to describe what is going on in their pictures and then code their responses as either positive or negative while capturing their stories.

“We can learn a lot about students’ experiences by listening to the stories contained in these pictures,” Preble adds.

A District Wide Initiative

Following a day-long teacher in-service workshop on School Climate and Learning that Preble conducted this fall for all Wilton teachers, Preble was invited to return to Wilton to help all four schools implement his SafeMeasures™ School Climate Improvement Process. It’s a program that has been used for more than 20 years in schools across the U.S., and which is currently being used in the New Canaan Schools as well as schools in New Hampshire and Tennessee.

The SafeMeasures Process focuses on these key elements:

  1. The empowerment of students as school climate experts and leaders.
  2. The collection of school climate data from students, teachers, and parents to gain a comprehensive picture of school climate strengths and needs.
  3. The use of these data to drive goals, decision-making, and actions to support school climate improvement.
  4. Collaborative work with students, teachers and school leaders in the design and development of strategies, activities and programming to address local school needs.
  5. Alignment of this work with ongoing, existing programs, systems, school traditions and rituals, and committees already in place.

All four Wilton principals have been actively involved in selecting a team of teachers to lead the process in their respective schools. A diverse team of students from each school also has been selected, trained and is now working with Preble and their teachers to collect school climate data and set goals based on these data for improving school climate. Action plans are currently being developed for each school by students and teachers cooperatively on these teams and these plans will be implemented over the next two years to address the issues that were shown in their data.

The School Climate Leadership Team at Miller Driscoll wanted their students and teachers to be fully involved in the district-wide school climate improvement effort, even though they were told that student surveys were not an appropriate practice for such young children. So, Preble and his team worked with the Miller-Driscoll team to develop the art-based, early childhood action research process that will be implemented tomorrow.

This process required many helping hands. “I am so excited that 14 of my students from New England College volunteered to be trained, to be woken up at 5 a.m., and driven to Wilton from New Hampshire, so they could help with this exciting process. These future teachers, social workers and psychologists will also gain a great deal in their own professional education by helping Miller-Driscoll learn about their students’ school climate experiences. This is very much a win-win day for both New England College students and Miller-Driscoll School,” Preble says.

Smith and Wilton School administrators will be scheduling a set of evening meetings for the community to share what is learned in the early stages of this process, and the goals that each school sets for improving school climate and learning over the next two years. They promise parent and community opportunities will be a part of the district-wide effort to build safer, more respectful and effective schools in Wilton.