WAPS seeks to improve school climate in systemic, sustainable way

School climate study

A cohort of teachers, support staff, principals and administrators has taken the first steps toward making Winona Area Public Schools a more equitable, welcoming and affirming environment for all students, families and the greater Winona community.

The district recently launched a three-year partnership with the Regional Centers of Excellence and the Minnesota Department of Education School Climate Center to transform and improve school climate. 

“The climate cohort will help WAPS look at our current climate functions and see where we can make positive, systemic and sustainable improvements for our students, staff and families,” said Karla Winter, Director of Learning and Teaching. “But, most importantly, it’s about the desire to build relationships and embody the feeling of safety and support for all.”

The partnership comes at no cost to the district, aside from the investment of staff time to devote to the work, and is not required or mandated by the state.

“This is a great opportunity for Winona Area Public Schools to study and take action to improve our school climate throughout the district,” Superintendent Dr. Annette K. Freiheit said. “The partnership will be crucial towards increasing equity, rethinking our student discipline policies and practices, transforming social emotional learning and school mental health systems.”

WAPS staff members took part in an onboarding process last week and will lead their colleagues on a journey that will take a systemic approach to transforming school climate in the district. It will not solely be an internal process, however, as the group will look to incorporate the voices of students and families — particularly the ones that haven't usually been heard — to build an environment that is better for all.

“All that we do is in service of educational equity,” said Joe Jezierski, a climate advocate at the Southeast-Metro Regional Center of Excellence in Rochester and a former school educator and administrator. “Everything that we are focused on is equity for all students.”

Much of this work has been ongoing in WAPS in different ways, including a partnership with the Regional Centers of Excellence on a school improvement plan for the Winona Area Learning Center, as well as other goals set through the World’s Best Workforce Plan or through the district’s agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. This partnership, however, will take all of those various projects and initiatives, align them under one shared vision and put the focus on improving the school climate for all students and families.

“The point here is to not try something new,” said Crag Wethington of MDE. “It’s to help you reflect on what you are already doing and recognize areas where you can make improvements. We want to build on the assets you already have.”

Research shows that school climate transformation results in improvement in areas such as attendance, academic achievement, student/staff retention, graduation rates and discipline disparities. 

“You really need to look at systemic change and confront some of those institutional practices that are impeding equitable education for all students,” Wethington said. “Through this process, you will begin to examine how your policies and procedures and practices will be allowing voices and values and experiences from those groups who may not always be represented in the things you do.”

The cohort will meet once a month, although much of the work will take place outside of the regular meeting times. This is also a “bottom-up” process rather than a “top-down” one because the plan needs to work for Winona Area Public Schools, not the Minnesota Department of Education or the Regional Centers of Excellence, Jezierski said. 

“Your voice is really going to be important,” Jezierski said. “This is your work, this is about the Winona schools and what your community needs.”

The process promises to be intentional, strategic, fundamentally collaborative, data-driven, transparent and democratically informed, Wethington said. 

Improvement strategies include developing a school climate vision aligned with community values as well as taking a school climate assessment. There will be increased training, such as bias and inclusion training for staff and bullying and harassment investigation training for administrators. 

In the classroom, WAPS will continue to implement restorative practices, principles and mindset and identify routines for classroom engagement. The work will also rely on the input of those who have traditionally not had a voice in these processes, and the facilitators said ideas from staff, parents and students could be used to develop and implement anti-racist schoolwide positive behaviors.

Although the comprehensive strategy may seem overwhelming, the desired effect is a simple one.

“We want to transform the way you feel when you come to school, or the way your kids feel when they come to school,” WAPS school social worker Angela McQuinn said.