Over 40 years ago, in the classic work School Power, Yale Professor James Comer introduced the idea that to be successful for all young people, a school’s culture had to comprise a web of supportive relationships between students and teachers and between students themselves. The impact on school culture, which Comer defined simply as “the way we do things around here”, is one of the most profound unanticipated consequences of moving from in-school to online learning during the Covid 19 pandemic.
As in-school learning retuned in Fall, 2021, Principal Curt Scheidel of Fort Vancouver High School in Vancouver, Washington noted, “I was ill prepared for what 18 months without regular school was going to do to the cultural norms within the school. Every school has a norming and inculturation process that comes from the natural experience of being in school every day. Older students pass on the culture to newer students – but that couldn’t happen during the pandemic.”
While teachers worked hard to re-establish cultural norms within their classrooms, students clashed outside class to the point where there were “eight fights in eight days” according to Scheidel, an intensity of behavioral problems unheard of before the shutdown. “Students had forgotten how to be around each other,” says Allison Darke, Professional Development Specialist at Fort Vancouver, “and it posed quite a challenge to the school’s leadership.”
Fortunately, Scheidel and his leadership team realized to support students and reestablish cultural norms of civility required a systemic approach, in addition to case-by-case interventions. Among a variety of innovations, school leaders relied heavily on “action teams” of counselors, administrators and advocates created during the pandemic. Each action team is responsible for a segment of the student population, keeping an eye out for those showing early signals of social or emotional struggles and quickly connecting them to appropriate supports within the school community. For students having the greatest difficulties in integrating back into the Fort Vancouver culture, the “Making it Right” program was created to build relational skills, drawing on researched based approaches including Anger Replacement Therapy and Collaborative Problem Solving.
School leaders also realized that teachers’ well-being and continued learning is equally dependent on strong, supportive relationships. Accordingly, while never a “sit and get” culture of professional development, Fort Vancouver doubled down on collaborative professional learning structures in the Fall to promote engaging adult learning opportunities and a sense of community among teachers.
Fort Vancouver High School is a calmer place going into the Spring semester. “We still need a broader repertoire of supports but we’re definitely making progress,” says Scheidel. Progress toward the kind of culture of caring in which all students thrive, captured in Dr. Comer’s prescient vision four decades ago.