Positively Changing School Climate in North Branford
For positively changing a critical component of North Branford’s public school climate, Dr. Carter Welch Ed.D. will soon add an impressive accolade to his growing list of achievements. Just three years into his work as principal for North Branford’s PreK-2 Jerome Harrison Elementary School (JHS), Carter will be recognized on Saturday, March 18 with the UConn Neag School of Education’s 2017 Outstanding School Administrator award.
Carter is also a past National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Connecticut Assistant Principal of the Year Semi-Finalist (2011), North Branford Teacher of the Year (2006), and recipient of educational awards from the Governor’s Task Force on the Safe School Climate (2011) and UConn Neag School of Education Research Award (2011).
Carter took the helm of JHS at the opening of the 2014-15 school year, after serving as assistant principal of North Branford High School (NBHS) for four years, following other administrative and NBHS/district leadership roles.
A North Branford native (NBHS Class of ‘95), Carter found his first teaching job at NBHS in 2002, as a health and physical education teacher. Fun fact: He got his start as an educator by reversing course shortly after launching a career in an entirely different field.
“I started out, believe it or not, as a physical therapist,” says Carter, as he settles for a chat in his office, door open, as always. “And I did that for about a year, and just didn’t like it. Then I started at North Haven High School as athletic trainer, and loved being around kids, and it was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”
Armed with his sports medicine B.S. from UConn, Carter went back to school at Southern Connecticut State University to earn an master’s degree in education in 2002 as well as M.S. in exercise science in 2003 and certificate of advanced study in 2006. Later, he went back to UConn to earn his doctor of educational leadership in 2011 and also completed UConn’s Executive Leadership program (2012). Carter’s professional development continues this year in UConn’s highly competitive PreK-3 Leadership Program, which took just 15 participants for 2016-’17.
A Focus on School Climate
From his first teaching job at NBHS as a health and physical education teacher in 2002, the opportunity emerged for Carter to become District Health and PE coordinator.
“I enjoyed that, and got more involved in some of the district activities, and with that the school climate piece came along, which was really interesting to me,” says Carter. “School climate is a large part of my learning and what I’m interested in. It’s the stuff, I believe, that is the foundation of improving schools.”
Most of Carter’s doctoral dissertation was on school climate and the power that it has in creating school change. These days, he remains engaged in the discipline as part of an expert group.
“I have a connection with the National School Climate Center in New York and I do some research with them. I collaborate with them in Connecticut, but also with schools in Chicago and Minnesota, and I work with them on improving climate,” says Carter. “So that’s been so neat for me, to be a part of that.”
Beyond his expertise and education, Carter applies his own sensibility, experiences, parenting, and accessibility to create what has become a big turnaround in school climate at JHS. The school was in need of a bit of a positive kick-start when the Board of Education began seeking its new principal in 2014. At the time, Carter was happily involved in his work at NBHS.
“I thought I would continue at the high school and working with that age group, and maybe I’d become a high school principal when the opportunity came along,” says Carter.
He credits Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker and other district leaders and mentors for encouraging him to apply for the JHS job.
“When this opportunity opened up, the school was coming off a not-so-great climate piece. Scott and few others in the district helped me realize, although this age group isn’t in your experience, that climate piece, and getting people to come around and changing the culture of building, that’s your strength, and we think you’ll be great at it. So I said, ‘You know what? I’ll throw my hat in the ring.’”
Once Carter got the job, the next hurdle was convincing some staff, and even some parents, that he was the right fit. He credits not only his educational and career experience, but also his wife and children with helping on that score.
“When I got this job, one of the things that helped me in kind of selling it to other people who said, ‘What’s this high school guy doing in an elementary school?’ was that, at the time, I had kids that were very much the same age,” says Carter.
Carter and his wife, Debbie, settled in Guilford where they are raising their two children, Caden and Maddie. Carter’s grateful for the empathy his family life builds into his work.
“I live in that world that [JHS] families live in, and that’s helpful because you understand, and you know what they’re going through. My wife also has a full-time, demanding job, so it’s that balance that you try to achieve. I get that. When I talk to families, I understand.”
Carter also brought to JHS his style of using an interactive, inviting approach to encourage a life-long love of learning in young students.
“It’s so important for me to make sure they understand that role,” says Carter. “I’m here as a support and a help. And some teachers struggled with that mindset when I first came here. It was like they thought my role was to drop the hammer. I said, ‘No, I don’t agree. That’s not how I’m going to lead.’”
As a parent, Carter also recognized what some teachers may see as simply poor parenting, could in fact be inexperienced parenting— and a cry for help.
Assisting Parents, Assisting Staff
“One thing you hear a lot is, ‘It’s parents today; it’s this generation,’ and I say, ‘Okay, maybe that’s true, but how do we help them? That’s our goal.’ And I’ve found, with that mindset, the parents are wanting help so much, and they’re open to it. I think some teachers felt that’s a slippery slope—’We don’t want to criticize or offer help; they’re the parents.’ But [the parents] want it. They see us as the experts. They want us to help them to do this better.”
With help from school psychologist Beth Parker, JHS offers one-on-one help as well as forum nights on topics ranging from helping kids push through difficult emotions toward better social-behavioral skills to how to self-regulate.
“It’s been really well-received. It’s not as well attended as we’d love, but we know it’s hard,” says Carter. “But the ones that do come have found it very useful. If they want the help, and we have it, we all get to a better place.”
Carter quickly helped JHS become a better place for staff, too.
“I try to be very much a people person, to be out and about and working with people. As I tell staff, we model the way that we approach our life, the way we come into work, how we project. That all has a huge influence on the rest of the place,” says Carter. “I’m constantly thinking of ways to help staff see that within themselves, to see that in the way they’re treating each other. I think that was one of the biggest things: to get the staff to enjoy each other’s company and to respect each other—and that would bleed into the kids. And it did.”
The next piece of the puzzle was to get families more involved and invested in the JHS community.
“It was changing to really try to include a lot of parents and family, and doing a lot of community service and community-based events. From my experience at the high school, that stuff really helped change the culture, and that’s kind of what worked here,” says Carter.
Another piece of the successful change of climate arrived with the Dream Team program.
“Early on, I established a kind of connection with Lauren Barry, who’s the lead teacher here, and Nicole Lacroix, who’s a teacher at the high school, trying to bring high school students down here to be partnered with classrooms,” says Carter. “The Dream Team students visit here multiple times a week. They’re working in classrooms, but also doing a lot on our character education, with things like mini-lessons and partnering for community service events. So it’s been a treat for the high school kids, because a lot of them are interested in going into education. But it’s been great for our kids, too.”
Carter is also continuing to work with staff on embracing today’s new learning goals and strategies.
“That’s a hard shift for the staff here. I feel for me it’s not quite as hard, because I haven’t lived in this world that long, and coming from a place where there’s always been a lot of external pressure and accountability, it seems kind of normal,” he says. “But the level of rigor and what kids are expected to do, not only writing, but thinking, researching...those kinds of things, at this young age, it’s hard."
Added to that challenge is, "...trying to balance the amount of assessment we do with kids. So it’s somewhat trying to really back off and do what’s age-appropriate, while asking ourselves, ‘How do we push them, how do we make it rigorous?’ That’s a tricky slope,” he says. “And we don’t have that answer yet. We’re still figuring it out as we go.”
JHS is currently home to 408 students, including the part-time PRIDE pre-K program. With the recent announcement of a new grant that will allow JHS to incorporate the town’s first all-day pre-K classroom (growing to include a second classroom next year) Carter is even more mindful of JHS as the critical educational launch pad for North Branford’s youngest residents.
As school principal, what Carter wants most for his students is to have their JHS experience help them embrace school as a place to grow and learn.
“I try to remind staff, even with kids who are struggling, we’ve got to do everything we can to keep them engaged and not turn them off at an early age, because I’ve had that experience of dealing with a 9th-grader who hates school and has for 10 years,” he says. “I want to make sure every kid enjoys school, feels happy, likes to come here, and feels a part of it. That’s a big thing: making them feel connected.”