Princeton, N.J.—When a fifth-grade student at Lincoln Park Middle School walks down the hallway, chances are he or she will feel comfortable to say hello to a passing eighth grader — and probably by name.
That can be a big deal for each student’s morale. And this seemingly simple act says a lot about a school’s culture.
Creating a healthy school culture is a process that takes purpose, action and time — along with the right resources.
Thanks to an $800,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, United Way of Northern New Jersey, along with partners, will be able to tackle both school culture and mental health needs in some 17 northern New Jersey public schools over the next three years.
This grant makes it possible to build upon the award-winning work of the School Culture and Climate Initiative, a collaboration between United Way and the College of Saint Elizabeth. Public schools in communities repeatedly hit hard by natural disasters, including Hurricane Sandy, will now benefit from the Initiative as well as additional mental health supports and training for both students and staff. The Initiative will expand to both tackle the post-traumatic stress still being experienced by students due to Hurricane Sandy and build resilience for future events.
Lincoln Park Middle School, with its 400 students, is an example of where the School Culture and Climate Initiative has already been making a difference and will be expanded to provide mental health supports. This grant allows United Way to have NewBridge Services Inc. provide targeted, school-based mental health assistance to both students and staff to address current needs stemming from Hurricane Sandy and provide training on prevention techniques for the future.
Creating a Positive Culture
“The goals are to help schools improve culture and climate, increase students’ social emotional skills and character development; decrease bullying and school violence; increase student engagement and increase students’ perception that their schools are safe and supportive of them,” says Liz Warner, leader of the United Way Youth Empowerment Alliance and co-director of the School Culture and Climate Initiative.
The process begins with a survey completed by students, faculty, staff and parents. The team at the College of Saint Elizabeth’s School Culture and Climate lab analyzes the data to help the school capitalize on opportunities to create a positive school environment. Students ultimately recommend the changes made at a school. This process is based on years of research from top educational organizations that shows children with strong social and emotional skills who are in schools with a positive culture and climate have fewer disciplinary issues and higher academic achievement.
“United Way and the College of Saint Elizabeth have been critical to our success, guiding us through the process of assessing and improving our culture, providing resources and connecting us to industry thought leaders and other schools going through similar challenges,” says Lincoln Park Middle School Principal Michael Meyer.
Students lead the way
As a result of the Initiative, the middle school completely changed its structure so that fifth through eighth grades were intermingled, Meyer says. Students initiated team-building activities throughout the year that involve mixed grades.
“Now we’ve found that students respect each other more because they know each other,” Meyer says.
Every middle school is unique, but the universal goal is for every student who walks down the hallway to feel like it’s a safe place in which he or she is comfortable to participate. With that feeling of well-being, these students are inspired to make a difference in their school now and are equipped with the tools to continue to make a difference in our world tomorrow.
United Way and the College of Saint Elizabeth are working with 50 schools in 12 districts, representing more than 25,000. To learn more, visit UnitedWayNNJ.org/YouthEmpowermentAlliance.
School Culture and Climate Initiative is a partnership of United Way Youth Empowerment Alliance and College of Saint Elizabeth Center for Human and Social Development.