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Chet Bialicki, Westbrook High School’s teen leadership coordinator, says he’s in awe of what his students have been able to accomplish in increasing understanding of school climate issues. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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For six years now, Chet Bialicki and students at Westbrook High School (WHS) have been addressing school climate in innovative ways.
It all started in 2013, when Westbrook’s then-new Superintendent of Schools Patricia A. Ciccone approached Chet, as teen leadership coordinator, to lead students in a pilot project by polling the community about its impressions of WHS. The program was an initiative of the National School Climate Center (NSCC), which advocates for “safe supportive learning environments that nurture social and emotional, civic, and academic growth for students.”
The organization approached Westbrook because its Board of Education had recently adopted the National School Climate Standards, the first high school in the country to do so.
“So we began the venture in 2013,” Chet says. “I had my students go out on the green on Memorial Day weekend and that was our kickoff. They polled the community with a school climate survey. They were looking at all the business sectors in the community and asking people what their impression was of WHS by taking this survey.”
The students visited various businesses themselves and conducted the surveys in person, input the data, and submitted it to the NSCC in New York, which compiled it and sent back a report.
“And from then on there, we just built this extraordinary program on enhancing school climate,” Chet says.
In 2014, WHS convened its first student-run assembly, and the students who’d worked on the community survey presented the findings to their peers.
“This is what everyone’s thinking about us,” the students said at the assembly, according to Chet’s telling. These are "the areas that we have to improve, the areas we have to think about."
The group of students had spent hundreds of hours on the survey project. Their efforts and their interest raised the question, “Teachers are being trained in school climate; why can’t students be trained in school climate?” Chet says.
Chet had been teaching student leadership classes for years; he now added a school climate class as the third in the series. In the WHS course catalogue, among disciplines like Math and English, there’s a category called Leadership. “Under Leadership, you’ll see Teen Leadership, Teen Leadership II, and School Climate,” he explains.
In various ways, schools across the nation are devoting attention to social and emotional learning, spurred in part by efforts to prevent violence.
Some, Chet says, “might just do a health class...I’m very fortunate that our superintendent [supports a] class on school climate. I don’t know of any other schools that have a school climate class with school climate curriculum.
“[W]e are giving students the mechanism to share their feelings and emotions and talk about things, not just in a personal setting with a counselor, but in classroom settings if they choose the class,” he explains.
“Our team leadership classes allow students to come in and...talk...confidentially about what they’re feeling, what they think others are feeling...so they understand what’s on the inside of people,” he says.
Generally, schools “don’t have a curriculum that teaches what’s going on inside you when you come in the doors or what’s going on inside me, and the face—the mask—that we wear to cover everything up to make it look good,” he says. “But we bring out that so that everyone can see.”
In one activity, students are asked to complete the sentence beginning, “If only my teachers knew...” They turn in their responses, but don’t write their names on them.
“You would be surprised about the number of students who answered that question about their personal lives,” he says. “What’s going on at home. A parent dying of cancer. A grandmother that connected with them just passed away. About substance issues.”
Chet brings his ideas to his students and they refine them, bringing their understanding of what will work best with their peers. Their hard work led to their receiving a $5,000 Changemaker Award via a partnership between the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and Facebook, money that has helped fund programs so full of promise that their own school couldn’t contain them.
“If you’re going to change how people feel about others and all, we need to begin at younger ages,” Chet’s students told him.
“So we began to prepare presentations for the [Westbrook] middle school and the elementary school,” he says. “And the elementary and middle school presentations focus on empathy, kindness, feelings for others, how social media may influence us as males and females in society. And we started in our district doing all these presentations...and they became quite successful.”
So successful, in fact, that the inevitable next step was to offer presentations outside the district.
“We did a pilot school. We went to Deep River Elementary School...and it was just unbelievable, it was just so accepted,” Chet says.
In order to continue to offer their presentations, Chet submitted a proposal to the Connecticut Association of Schools’ Flanagan Grant Program, which, among other endeavors, funds school climate programs. In 2018, WHS was awarded a $5,000 grant. The two grants have lifted the pressure from the Westbrook School District to fund the school climate programs.
And there’s now a WHS Teen Leadership brochure listing seven presentations it offers to other schools, from Empathy Development to Social Media Influence on Girls to Choosing Kind.
“This is a super major accomplishment for us,” Chet says, “to be able...to go out and take everything we’ve researched and done out to other schools and other people.”
Chet never imagined he’d be a teacher.
“I wanted to be a builder,” he says.
“But my parents said, You’ve got to go to college,” he explains. “I lived in New Haven and my brother, my cousin, everyone went to Southern Connecticut State University [SCSU]. I went to SCSU. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I became a special ed teacher.”
Six months after he graduated, an opening came up at Westbrook High School. Chet was hired to teach three students who had been outsourced to other districts. Westbrook had realized it was more cost effective to bring the students back home and hire a special education teacher.
Eventually, Chet became special education coordinator, then transition coordinator, ensuring that students—particularly those with special needs—have everything in place for their next endeavor after graduation. These are hats he continues to wear.
School budgets tightened and Chet “had to take on some classes,” he says. So he decided to find out more about the emerging field of teen leadership. He attended a training through a program called Capturing Kids’ Hearts, founded in 1990 by the psychotherapist Flip Flippen.
“[T]hey approved me as a teacher for teen leadership, so I started teaching...a couple of classes here and there,” he says. “And I just loved so much working with students. They inspire me so much. When you see the glimmer in their eyes when they see that they can make a difference with things, I just want to take it to the next level.”
That next level was Teen Leadership II, then the school climate class.
Chet is in awe of his students and all he and they have accomplished together.
“If you came to me in 2013 and said, Chet, seven years from now you’re going to be doing these kinds of things, I would have said, ‘That’s impossible,’” he says. “How do I get there? You get there by taking steps. No matter how big your step is, it’s a step. That’s what we’re doing.”
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