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Healthy, successful schools focus on forging strong relationships, panelists say | Education

Two school administrators and two college professors agreed Tuesday that strong bonds among adults and children are key to creating a school climate essential for excellent academic results.

The panel, organized by the nonprofit group Volunteers in Public Schools, also agreed that strong leadership is another important factor, but differed on what that kind of leadership looks like.

“I think it starts with relationships first,” LaMont Cole, principal of a charter school in Baton Rouge, told an audience of about 50 people who gathered at Juban’s Restaurant.

Cole, who also serves as a Metro Council member, has long been known for going to great lengths to connect with both students and staff.

On Monday morning, as he readied to start five long days of LEAP testing, Ronald Harris walked into an unexpected scene. His fellow eighth-gra…

Last April, he made the news when he placed handwritten inspirational notes on the desks of all 279 students at CSAL — the Community School for Apprenticeship Learning — that they saw the morning they began standardized testing.

Just this past Saturday, he attended “Boosie Bash” at Southern University, a concert led by prominent local rapper Boosie, in part because a number of his students were going: “I went not because I like the music, I went because I wanted to have something we could talk about on Monday.”

Cole said such relationships are even more important as ways to overcome the downward pull of trauma that students sometimes experience at home and in their neighborhoods.

“I think it’s important for educators to realize that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also take a village to destroy one too,” he said.

The other panelists shared similar insights.

Adam Smith, an associate superintendent with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system and a former middle school principal, said he immediately senses when he walks into a classroom whether it’s warm and inviting or if the teacher is just going through the motions.

”It’s not just about the relationships between students and teachers, it’s about the relationships between students and students,” Smith said, noting that in the healthy classrooms, students are pulling together.

Margaret Mary Sulentic Dowell, an LSU education professor and a former school administrator, said that at good schools “everyone involved in that school contributes to that effort.” And it’s not easy because there’s so much to get right, she said.

“You want (students) to feel socially, emotionally and physically safe in a school,” Dowell said. “And that is a tall order.”

“My own yardstick is this a place I want my grandchildren to be,” she added.

VerJanis Peoples, director of Southern University’s College of Education, said schools create a good environment by developing effective ways to answer the problems children bring with them to school, including conflict resolution and anti-bullying programs.

When it comes to school leadership, Smith said he worked hard when he was principal of Park Forest Middle to keep his staff happy.

“The school I worked for, nobody left, not because (the school) had a great rep, but because I appreciated them,” he said.

He said good school leaders learn on the job, which he called a “growth mindset,” and they have “the ability to build a shared vision for that school.”

Dowell said schools, even the toughest ones, will do better if they have access to more money and resources. She disagreed with those who discount that as an important element, offering a colorful analogy: “If you got a hooptie and you put money into it, it’s going to be better.”

Peoples said good school leaders work closely with their teachers and share in the school’s success.

“When teachers are actively involved in mapping change and the result is improvement, the teachers go back to the classroom feeling good about what they do,” she said.

Cole, however, cautioned that the leader needs to remain at the center to ensure success, otherwise the school might end up with “a strong group of teachers who are walking over the principal.”

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.