Woodland Hills Junior-Senior High School principal Phillip K. Woods personally greeted students as they piled off the bus for the first day of class, hoping to set a new tone after a series of recent student discipline scandals.
It’s Woods’ first year at the Pittsburgh school with plenty of problems, and he’s convinced his ability to transform the culture at Woodland Hills rests heavily on one word: trust.
“What I’m looking forward to is just being a positive entity, being an agent of change, being someone that these kids can look up to and confide in and trust,” Woods told the Tribune-Review.
“That’s a big word, trust,” he said. “People underestimate the word trust when it comes to education. But building relationships again, and trust, are key, especially with these young people.”
Woods said he’s attending community and district board meetings to reach out to families, and he’s planning a host of other changes to engage more with students, including a shift toward restorative justice practices and reforms for school resource officers. The new principal is among a wave of new administrators this year following several controversies between students and staff. The school district currently faces a federal civil rights lawsuit over clashes between resource officers and unruly teens, according to the news site.
Days before classes started, the school board extended its contract with local police for school security amid some opposition, but Woods said students and parents will soon realize he’s taking a much different approach than in the past. Officers ditched their uniforms for work casual, no longer carry Tasers, and now take on a more active advisory role, rather than simply reacting to violent students, he said.
“We’re going to work to soften their image, as far as their appearance and as far as their duties,” Woods said. “We’re going to give them more instructional duties as far as nurturing, and helping students understand different laws, different interactions.”
Woods also hopes to gain students’ trust through weekly restorative justice circles – safe spaces for students to discus what’s on their mind, from current events to school or personal issues.
“We hope that having those restorative justice circles will allow the teachers to understand the students, and allow the students to understand other students within their classroom,” he told the Tribune-Review.
The overall goal, Woods said, is to create a better culture to tackle student behavior, a domino that will undoubtedly improve learning.
“My goal is to put less attention on behavior, correct the behavior so that we can put more attention on academics and achievement,” he said.
In essence, Woods is working to shift the “moral ecology” that defines students’ character, and he’s uniting school staff behind his vision of a more compassionate school culture.
James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, discussed how the moral ecology of a community influences students in “The Content of Their Character,” a summary of character education in a wide variety of schools.
“When social institutions – whether the family, peer relationships, youth organizations, the internet, religious congregations, entertainment, or popular culture – cluster together, they form a larger ecosystem of powerful cultural influence,” according to Hunter.
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory offers insight and resources for educators working to transform school culture with “Building Trusting Relationships for School Improvement: Implications for Principals and Teachers,” which covers the “Key Components of Trust,” and “Obstacles for Building and Maintaining Trust,” complimented by case studies from Oregon schools.
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