As an administrator at Manchester Community College, in Manchester, Conn., Patricia A. Ciccone wondered why so many of her students were not finishing their degrees. “What was the goal?” she remembers asking. “How do we help students make those decisions?”
Seeking the answer to that question led Ciccone, to consider the transitions students make between primary and secondary school, from secondary school to college, and from college to career. Her search eventually drew her to the Connecticut Technical High School System, a state-run district where students from across the state can get a grounding in real-world work skills while acquiring the academic credits they need to graduate from high school.
“I believe this [vocational education] is the answer,” says Ciccone, 60, who served as the superintendent of the 11,000-student technical high school system from 2003 until retiring in December 2012. “Even if they choose not to work in their chosen field, they have such significant exposure” that they can make informed choices, she says. Students leave the district with a high school diploma and a certificate in a chosen trade.
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But even in the technical schools, Ciccone found herself frustrated by how much of her time and her students’ time was lost to discipline issues. She perceived that students were getting lost along the way—the same problem she had seen in community colleges.
So, in 2006, she worked with the schools’ principals and Jo Ann Freiberg, a school climate consultant for the state’s department of education, to create a survey of students and staff members at all 16 schools in the system. The aim was to gauge if students felt safe in school, and if they and the staff felt the school was a good place to learn—in short, to measure the schools’ climate.
The survey revealed that many students felt connected to an adult in the school—but not all did. Some didn’t even feel safe from physical harm.
Analyzing the survey results helped schools in the system set tangible goals for improving their school climates, the former superintendent says.
The next step was to address the concerns the survey revealed. Teachers and administrators in the district receive state-run training on school climate, Ciccone says, and she was present at each session. It can be hard to get busy administrators to feel comfortable leaving their buildings for training, Ciccone says, but she made sure that the financial and staff support was available for that to happen. In the drive to improve school climate, Ciccone supported an approach to discipline based on restorative justice that encouraged students to find their way back to school even after offenses. And each school in the district has three data-driven goals to strive for each year: one each in reading, math, and school climate. Whether because of the emphasis on school climate or not, students in the technical-high-school system are sticking around: Its graduation rate in 2010-11, at 91.6 percent, was 10 points higher than the state’s average of 81.8 percent.
Leading the Way
Last year, the state of Connecticut followed suit, mandating that all 180 of its districts use a survey modeled on the one the technical district pioneered.
The survey has helped administrators target issues and students in need.
“We more actively address concerns that we may not have had before because of the work on climate and recognition of a specific need,” says Robert Sartoris, in his fourth year as the principal at Howell Cheney Technical High School, a school in Manchester, outside of Hartford, and part of the system Ciccone led. But solutions need to be tailored to the school community, Ciccone says. She is wary of boxed school climate programs.
“Kids need to be connected to adults and other students in the schools,” she says. “If you have a program that says, ‘When this person says this, you do that'—that scripting can mean you won’t take the responsibility to form relationships with the kids; … you’re going to hide behind it and so are they.”
She also believes that the increased focus on bullying nationally has prevented some adults from seeing the difference between “normal conflict between young adults” and pathological behavior.
Instead, she encouraged school leaders to set targeted, manageable goals—for instance, increasing the percentage of students who report feeling that there is an adult at school they can talk to, or increasing the number of positive responses on the school climate survey.
“A lot has to do with adult behavior, so the responsibility is on us,” says Nivea Torres, the system’s interim superintendent. “It’s about developing positive relationships, adult to adult and adult to student.”
Schools in the technical district also have the task—unique in Connecticut, where every other school district is formed around a town or a city—of building tolerance and a sense of community among students from many different locations. The school at which Sartoris is principal, for instance, draws from 27 towns and close to 50 middle schools, some in affluent suburbs and others in less-well-off city centers.
To help prepare students for their trade schools and build connections in such diverse settings, N.F. Kaynor Technical High School, in Waterbury, has a leadership course for freshmen that was recently extended to sophomores, says Kathryn Patrick, who teaches leadership at the school. Students learn to greet each other and teachers with a handshake, and focus on skills like anger management and empathy in monthly lessons from a Peaceful School Climate Committee made up of students and teachers. The course also has a community-service component.
Both Ciccone and Sartoris say the schools’ task, besides imparting academic and vocational skills, is to help prepare students to become citizens.
“Absolutely, we want children to leave us with demonstrated growth in academic areas and their trade areas,” Sartoris says, “but we’re also preparing students to be members of their communities. It goes hand in hand.”
The technical schools’ program—students spend half their time on trade instruction and half the time on more standard academic fare—can foster engagement, but it also means behavior problems could have bigger consequences.
“You’re standing right next to boiling water, hot grease, and flame,” notes Ciccone, who is currently the schools superintendent in Westbrook, Conn.
But the schools’ focus on helping students be prepared for and make informed choices about college and career encourages students to invest in school, says Ivette Melendez, 18, a senior at Kaynor Tech who is studying hairdressing and plans to use her trade to support herself while studying marine biology in college. “At Kaynor, we have more responsibility because we have to focus not only on our trades but on our academics. ... It’s challenging, but it prepares us really well,” she says. “I’m really glad I got the experience to come here.”
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A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week