Changing school cultures is a complex process. This article describes a collaboration between students and teachers in developing a resource manual to improve student conduct and reduce violence in schools.
In 1996, the Minister of Education assumed the leadership role in promoting safe and caring learning and teaching environments in Alberta schools. The Minister's Safe and Caring Schools (SACS) Initiative provides a collaborative and integrated approach for dealing with this important societal issue and involves education partners in projects to do the following:
develop and implement prevention materials and resources to support teaching and learning;
identify the nature and extent of violence in Alberta schools; and
examine issues about governance related to promoting safe and caring schools in Alberta.
It is the first of these intents to which our project is related. Specifically, the goal of the project is to design, develop, and field-test a student-generated print resource for Alberta schools for Grades 7 through 11 to provide information, ideas, and strategies that promote Safe and Caring School Initiatives.
The development of the Safe and Caring Schools: Resource Manual for Students and Teachers in Secondary Schools is based on the premises, principles, and beliefs of the Alberta Teachers' Association and Alberta Learning. The content and processes used in the manual attend to the following objectives:
involving home, school, and community
integrating safe and caring values into the activities of the school, including curricular and extracurricular activities
teaching social skills
respecting the rights and dignity of all involved
empowering students to take responsibility for their own behavior and to demonstrate self-discipline, and providing them with support to speak out.
A rich literature exists concerning violence, gangs, bullying, crime, and harassment; however, much of it has been written from an adult perspective. Parents, school administrators, and teachers have sought ways of preventing and/or intervening effectively, and students have been the "recipients" of a deluge of programs and services designed to make schools safe places. It is the main purpose of the SACS manual, however, to empower and involve students in effecting change in their school environments. Working cooperatively with teachers, school administrators, and parents, the students themselves will make the necessary significant improvements in school culture and climate.
Thirteen secondary schools were involved in the initial phase of the development of the Resource Manual. Students and teachers representing each of these schools attended three half-day workshops, where much of the content for the manual was generated. Each school was responsible for piloting a Safe and Caring Schools Initiative over a 2-year time period by using the information, ideas, and strategies from the workshops. We are presently in the first year of the project.
In making the commitment to be involved, schools agreed to the following conditions:
Students must be actively involved in their school's initiative.
Schools must agree to intentionally create and maintain a safe and caring school culture over the 2-year period.
Schools must use the ideas and strategies, encompassing both content and process, that were generated as part of the manual. However, it is expected that the Initiative will look different in each school and that the manual will need to be tailored to the unique needs of individual schools and communities.
Schools must sustain the initiative by developing school policies that attend to the values and attributes of the SACS Initiative.
Resource Manual Contents
The Resource Manual, which was written by students and teachers, consists of five main parts, which will be described next.
This part provides an overview of the topic of safe and caring schools. The manual includes both the perspective of Alberta Learning and the Alberta Teachers' Association and provides background information on the purpose and development of the manual.
Written by students, this part introduces the reader to the five dimensions of Safe and Caring Schools identified by workshop participants. Those dimensions are
school and community connections,
student involvement and leadership,
relationships, and physical security.
The following descriptions of each dimension were written by secondary students.
School and Community Connections. As schools strengthen relationships with communities, they build environments where tensions are reduced. They also construct a stronger basis for the exchange of resources. These bonds foster responsiveness, which allows the community and school to deal with problems that can be solved together. Community ties are strengthened through activities designed to promote positive relationships. In pooling community and school resources, more opportunities become available to more people. Other relationships may be fostered between community and school by aiding students in the transitions from elementary school to junior high and finally to senior high school.
Emotional Wellness. Students need to feel confident and proud of themselves and their school. If students and staff are emotionally healthy, they care about themselves and each other. They also take care of the school. We all need to learn healthy ways of handling stress and anger. Everyone is responsible for his or her emotional health. There is a relationship between how students feel when they are at school and their academic performance. Students will not want to become involved in the life of the school if they feel threatened or unhappy. Strategies that affect emotional wellness include the following:
reduction of litter and vandalism,
extending homeroom once each week
use of a school song, school logo, and school mascot
student representation at staff meetings and on various teacher committees
fair discipline practices.
Student Involvement and Leadership. As students increase participation in school-based activities, better relationships develop between themselves and their fellow students, thereby creating a pleasant environment that contributes to a safe and caring school. As a means of increasing student involvement, students and staff members develop school programs together. Such programs give students a sense of belonging, help participants forge bonds with peers, and increase student self-esteem. They can be funded as part of school budget or offered at low cost, perhaps through use of a modest registration fee.
Relationships. Relationships are the foundation upon which all other attributes of a safe and caring school are built. Without a strong foundation of open, caring, and trusting relationships, it will be difficult to promote and strengthen the other dimensions of Safe and Caring Schools. Strong relationships between student and student, between student and teacher, and between teacher and teacher ensure effective communication and support. Relationships help students and staff learn how to interact with each other and how to create and maintain a peaceful environment. They also help individuals to feel more comfortable when moving from class to class. Many different strategies can be used to achieve strong relationships. Examples might include the following:
buddy system between different grade-level students
peer support program
interschool track meet
dances organized by students
mixed sports teams
awards and recognition of student achievement
involvement of community agencies (e.g., law enforcement and social work) in the school
provision of a variety of programs that appeal to diverse student populations.
Physical Security. This dimension is defined as "feeling safe" in your school environment. Practical strategies to increase safety and security included many of the following options:
floodlights around the school
windows without bars
paved pathways on common trails
mixed-grade lockers and hallways
cafeterias that accommodate all students and have sufficient quantities of food
cafeterias that have a sit-down breakfast program
cafeterias that have sufficient staff and are open more hours
more room in locker rooms
reduced theft through provision of more lockers
increased teacher supervision
anonymous student information boxes to let teachers know what is going on.
This part addresses planning, implementing, and sustaining a SACS Initiative within the school. Although students wrote this section, the framework for the planning process was borrowed from the Comprehensive School Health Initiative. The students shared their enthusiasm and practical ideas for getting started and staying on track. They also offered practical strategies for evaluating the Initiative. The planning process consisted of the following steps: establishing a common vision and forming an action committee, involving all stakeholders in the school community, formulating a school plan, engaging in an ongoing evaluation process, identifying the supports required to sustain the Initiative, and incorporating the Initiative in school policy and/ or curricula. Questions concerning practical ideas and strategies included the following:
What planning steps need to be taken to make the Safe and Caring Schools Initiative successful at your school?
How can a working group be formed in your school?
How can you get staff, students, and parents to "buy in" to the Initiative?
How would you know if the Safe and Caring Schools Initiative was successful in your school?
How do you maintain enthusiasm for the Initiative?
How do you build the Safe and Caring Schools Initiative into school policy?
What support is required, both inside and outside the school, for the Initiative to be successful?
How can the Initiative be supported by the curricula in your school?
This feature: Jeary, J. (2001). Students and teachers develop a resource manual for safe and caring schools. Reclaiming Children and Youth, vol.9 no.4, pp207-209