Community Faculty & Staff

Building a school culture of trust and respect

Rowhea Elmesky has a quiet presence. As the room around her buzzes with ideas and opinions, she listens quietly, gently nodding and allowing each statement to filter through her mind. It is as if she is checking each thought, carefully considering every perspective. It is only after this process that she speaks.

Elmesky is an associate professor in the Department of Education in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Over the past year, her work has brought her to a local high school that is closely tied to the university community. In fact, University City High School (UCHS) sits only two and a half miles north of the Danforth Campus. The high school is rich in diversity. Socially, culturally, and socioeconomically, the school is a snapshot of the melting pot that surrounds it. However, in a school setting, as in many situations in life, the merging of diverse communities can occasionally bring challenges.

In fall 2014, the Institute for School Partnership at WashU connected Elmesky with two administrators in the University City School District, Assistant Superintendent Chauna Williams and Assistant Principal Susan Hill. “The administration is clearly invested in ensuring that their students are college ready but also has concerns about promoting a positive school culture,” Elmesky says, as she recalled the passion and energy of their first conversation. “Through their own observations, they noticed that discipline has a direct connection to student achievement and ultimately college preparation.”

With this in mind, the district’s administration asked Elmesky how her expertise as a researcher could help UCHS and enlisted her to partner with them to create practical solutions that would lead to real change in the school’s culture and disciplinary practices.

“It was really exciting to me to see individuals like Chauna and Susan who were so keen and committed to the transformative process,” Elmesky says. However, Elmesky knew that in order to affect real transformation in the school, they would need to engage a group far larger than just herself and the administration.


During her postdoctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, Elmesky realized that her interests as a science education researcher extended beyond the typical focus. “While many science educators focus on research spanning the conceptual and cognitive domains, I was deeply intrigued by the sociocultural factors that were at work during the teaching and learning of science,” Elmesky says.

In essence, she didn’t just want to know how students came to understand scientific concepts; she wanted to know how students’ identities and social and cultural resources facilitated that process.

Her research asked tough questions around racial and cultural diversity in science, technology, engineering and math. She also investigated the interaction of poverty in science education. Her approach was to engage research participants as co-researchers, with the aim of transforming learning spaces. “I didn’t want to create research that would just sit in a book for years until a school administrator happened to read it and tried to implement it,” Elmesky says. She wanted research that would evolve, educate and catalyze immediate and long-term change as it was implemented in a school setting.

For that reason, Elmesky’s research involves conversations in multiple formats – interviews, focus groups, and cogenerative dialogues – that would allow her to engage with the school at every level. Cogenerative dialogue is the practice of gathering together all groups within an organization for discussion and then using that discussion to bring about change. In the case of UCHS, that would mean bringing together students, teachers and administrators to get to the heart of the issues surrounding school culture and discipline, but the journey towards this dialogue began with focus groups and interviews.

Olivia Marcucci leads a discussion around relationship-building with several educators from U City High School. (ISP PHOTO)
Olivia Marcucci leads a discussion around relationship-building with several educators from U City High School. (ISP PHOTO)

Together with graduate student Olivia Marcucci, Elmesky spent the 2015 spring semester presenting data on school discipline and suspension rates, as well as, holding focus groups with administrators, teachers and students at the school. Through their conversations with the school stakeholders, Elmesky and Marcucci learned that many of the disciplinary actions and suspensions came from students refusing simple requests from teachers, such as to stop talking, sit down, put away cell phones or complete work.

“Everyone in the building felt the tension between students and teachers, and a lot of that tension manifested itself in cell phone usage,” Marcucci says. “There’s this question about how technology can be used and differences of opinions between students and teachers.”

Beyond the issue of cell phones, the focus groups revealed that there was a breakdown in communication between teachers and students that left both groups feeling disrespected and disempowered. That disconnect had driven a wedge right in the middle of student-teacher relationships.


While drawing out the issues disrupting the school culture, Elmesky, Marcucci and members of the UCHS community also began to brainstorm a game plan for sparking action and, ultimately, change.

With the support of U College at WashU, Elmesky, Marcucci and Sara Estle, a colleague in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, held professional development workshops for educators at UCHS. During one session focused on relationship-building, Elmesky introduced cultural and social capital as tools to help teachers communicate in ways that would resonate with students. Using the tools also modeled effective communication techniques that students can translate to their own lives.

“Students at UCHS are very driven and will go on to college,” Elmesky says, “but they may or may not know how to interact with the adults in their life in ways that effectively communicate their serious focus and drive.”

To teach students at UCHS to effectively communicate with groups different from themselves, like their teachers or other adults in their community, the undergraduates in Elmesky’s Educational Studies Capstone course held self-advocacy workshops. The goal was to build a trusting environment where WashU undergraduates could help the high school students by teaching them specific strategies for making their opinions known while still respecting the thoughts and opinions of others. The undergraduates taught essential communication skills including active listening, compromising, rebutting ideas, and knowing one’s audience. At the end of the semester, the UCHS students decided to draft a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities that communicated their rights in the classroom. The process helped students take responsibility for their role in making the school a positive place to learn.

Susan Hill, assistant principal at UCHS, says that many of those students went on to participate in other self-advocacy activities in the school such as the Determined Strong Women and the Men of Valor programs. “One thing that I found is that kids are still talking about that experience in the self-advocacy workshops,” Hill says.

In addition to the workshop, Hill chose to teach a sociology senior seminar that taught students how to do research at the high-school level. Each student chose a topic of interest that affected school culture, such as dress code, school spirit, or conflict on social media. Once students had chosen their topic, they collected data, held focus groups, and drafted preliminary conclusions to their research. Over the next semester, students will create a set of recommendations for school administrators on how they can address some of the issues facing school culture together.

“I want to see the kids change the culture of the school,” Hill says. “I want them to know they were responsible for that positive change and to see themselves as change agents.”
What began as a passionate conversation about school culture with three individuals has quickly rippled throughout the school, igniting students, teachers, and administrators to take action. Moving forward, Elmesky says that she hopes to see these small shifts continue by bringing together students, teachers and administrators in one room for cogenerative dialogue, working together on specific issues of concern, and transforming their practices with the collective willingness to take shared responsibility for enacting the change. “There’s buy-in from participants if they are a part of the discussion and the process of putting the rules in place,” Elmesky says. “In the end, success will be having every part of the body, all the different pieces, coming together to make the change happen.”

December 2015 | by, Gennafer Barajas

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