With educators and policymakers acutely aware of the role that home and community factors can play in students’ safety and perception of safety at school—and its attendant impact on behavior and even academic performance—many are turning to parents and community members for help and support.
The perception issue is real. Children who were living in poverty and in communities where crime rates were higher and who attended inner city schools were predictably more likely to view their school environments as dangerous, according to Mary Keegan Eamon, a social work professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Jun Sung Hong, a doctoral student at the same school, whose research on the subject appeared in the Journal of Child and Family Studies in June 2012.
The researchers found that, in some cases, simple responses to such concerns can prove surprisingly profound. They discovered that 10- to 14-year-old students who talked to their parents about their studies, school activities, and other concerns actually felt safer in school.
In other cases, schools and school districts, aware that behavioral issues can be pervasive as barriers to learning, use everything from one-to-one help for parents and students to systemic programs in which an entire district gets on board to create or spark grassroots support to make safer schools.
Such is the case at Eastgate Elementary School in Kennewick, Wash., where staff members wanted to increase a sense of safety for students coming from a neighborhood struggling with threats of gang violence, says Stephanie Weyh, an English-as-a-second-language teacher who worked on the program as a co-chair with Michele Larrabee of Eastgate’s Action Team for Partnerships.
The school set a goal that 90 percent of children would feel safe, according to a case study written by Weyh and Larrabee, the school’s Title I reading teacher. They co-chaired an outreach effort to families of at-risk 4th and 5th graders who, with their parents and older siblings, were invited to attend a meeting of the program, known as Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT Families.
“It was hard to get them here at first,” says Weyh. “They weren’t sure what we were doing.” Presented by police—who may find themselves distrusted in some communities—the GREAT Families effort was conducted over six weeks, in two-hour sessions. Each evening event began with a meal, where families sat with police officers and school personnel before the formal program began. Word began to spread.
In the end, Weyh says, some parents became more comfortable coming to school than they were before, and relations with police officers improved. In school, teachers noticed improvements in student behavior. “While we don’t have any super-specific data, we know that—by individual student—we saw incidents decreasing and attendance improving. They had a better attitude about school, and about their lives at home even,” says Weyh. The program is being repeated in the 2012-13 school year.
Expanding the Focus
Such an outreach-based approach aims to expand the focus on school climate beyond the confines of the classroom experience.
“If you really want kids to do well in school, you have to think about more than instruction,” explains Howard Adelman, who, with Linda Taylor, is co-director of the School Mental Health Project and its federally supported National Center for Mental Health in Schools at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“We advocate for a systemic approach to the learning and behavior problems manifested by students—an approach that avoids blaming students and their families and calls on schools to develop a unified and comprehensive component to address factors interfering with learning and teaching,” he says.
To that end, he and Taylor have partnered with Scholastic Corp., the New York City-based publisher and distributor of children’s books and educational technology, to create the Rebuilding for Learning initiative, designed to help school leaders create systems of learning support.
The Gainesville, Ga., city school system is in its fourth year of using the Rebuilding for Learning system to identify and implement learning supports. Merrianne Dyer, the superintendent of the 7,500-student district, recognized that 20 percent to 25 percent of her students seemed to have intractable difficulties in improving their learning over time, despite various achievement-oriented initiatives tied to the curriculum. With 54 percent of her students learning English and 78 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunch, poverty and its attendant challenges fueled the problems those young people faced.
To help that 20 percent or so advance, Dyer adopted the comprehensive systems approach developed by Adelman and Taylor. Gainesville school-level administrators and educators first identified barriers to student learning, including such factors as bullying, families who had not had positive experiences with school, bus incidents, and problems with gangs and drugs.
One discovery was that 53 percent of the students deemed at risk of failure in Gainesville High School were new to the district. A system of supports was set up to help those students; it included a picnic welcoming them and their families to Gainesville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta.
In September 2012, the EPE Research Center conducted an online survey examining educators’ attitudes about school climate, discipline, and safety. The survey included two open-ended questions asking respondents to identify the most significant challenges they face in addressing student misbehavior and to describe potential solutions that could help them in their classrooms or at their schools. An analysis of the approximately 850 responses from teachers and administrators, who were registered users of the Education Week website, reveals that, across the the two survey items, the need for greater parental support emerges as the most common theme. Thirty-one percent of respondents cited lack of parental support as a significant challenge, while 25 percent highlighted the importance of parental involvement when pointing to solutions.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2013
In addition to support for transitions, Gainesville is working on five other areas: community outreach, home involvement in schooling, student and family assistance, crisis and emergency help and prevention, and classroom-based approaches to enable learning. To increase home involvement, each school now has a bilingual parent-involvement coordinator—most are from the Hispanic community—to bridge communication gaps.
In looking at students’ problems individually, the district realized that services were being duplicated, and that the big picture was often missed for families who were directed to different agencies to address issues within the same families, Dyer says.
“Now, we invite all community agencies to attend regular meetings, so they can see what is happening in each school and everyone can see their role,” she says. One organization offers mentoring; another, after-school activities.
The Gainesville district reports that, by working to improve in each of those areas, disciplinary actions at the high school and middle school levels requiring tribunals—formal disciplinary actions that result in alternative placements—dropped 48 percent between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 school years. In the elementary school, those disciplinary proceedings declined by 75 percent. Over the past three years, referrals throughout the district have decreased 50 percent.
Another approach to student achievement and behavioral issues has taken root in what’s known as Eagle Academy, which operates boys-only public schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens boroughs of New York City and in Newark, N.J.
Eagle Academy was founded in 2004 by educators, parents, community leaders, and corporate partners, led by the New York chapter of One Hundred Black Men Inc., a group of professionals working with the community. The academy works with adult men to mentor young men on their academic performance and behavior, and to work with parents—mostly single mothers—to help guide the young men’s education in the all-boys schools.
Today, nearly 1,500 boys in grades 6-12 are learning about academics and life in an environment that aims to focus on their needs and, to some extent, their families’ needs as well.
“Our school in the Bronx has 610 kids. You could come to a meeting on a Saturday, and see 450 parents. It’s standing room only,” says David Banks, the founder and chief executive officer of the New York City-based Eagle Academy Foundation.
The meetings are an opportunity to gain parents’ support for various school and class-level needs and activities, but they’re also a time when parents will see tables set up for health screenings or educational or employment opportunities that could benefit them.
“One of the boys at our school coined the phrase, ‘A young man without a mentor is like an explorer without a map.’ That’s why we’ve got mentors to serve as role models and big brothers for these young men,” Banks says.
Prior to admission, most of Eagle’s students “are average to below-average with significant social challenges,” he says. But last year, the graduation rate for all Eagle Academy schools was over 87 percent.
The demand for Eagle’s educational approach is overwhelming: 4,500 applications were received for the 100 openings Eagle Academy had in the Bronx alone. A lottery decides who will get in.
Support for Girls
Other programs are tailored to girls and their behavior problems. Gabriela Baeza, a project specialist with the San Diego County Office of Education, in California, has focused on helping girls—and their parents—for the past seven years. Baeza, who is called to intercede when a school in the 130,000-student San Diego Unified system is having pervasive behavior issues with girls, says emotional, physical, or sexual abuse is often behind the most egregious cases of acting out.
In addition to running groups for girls only, Baeza conducts sessions for their parents. “We let parents know that raising a daughter now is very different from when you were being brought up. So many things revolve around the media,” she says.
Her emphasis for parents is how to help build their daughters’ self-esteem, signs to look for that their daughters are in disciplinary trouble, and how to guide them through such issues. She teaches young mothers of girls the importance of being a role model, not a friend or sister figure, to their daughters.
Finding effective ways to communicate with parents is crucial. Baeza remembers a powerful program San Diego ran several years ago called Padres Unidos (Parents United). About 25 immigrant parents were trained to be facilitators, teaching 100 parents in small-group sessions about how best to support their children’s education in the United States. Despite the program’s success—which included parents’ watching out for one another’s children to avert truancy and other potential problems—three years’ lack of funding and available personnel brought it to an end.
Maintaining funds is a continuing issue for school safety initiatives, according to Wayne Sakamoto, the director for school safety in California’s Murrieta Valley Unified district. Budget cuts mean that money previously allocated for counselors, school resource officers, and bullying and gang prevention is now routinely allocated to the general fund for teachers or transportation, he says.
Often, schools must seek private support to keep safety programs intact, says Sakamoto, who speaks nationally on school safety and sees the trend across the country.
Sometimes, districts can succeed by combining forces, as the 23,000-student Murrieta Valley did when it received $160,000 for two years from the California Wellness Foundation to work with at-risk youths there and in three other school districts.
Sakamoto conducts many types of prevention workshops for parents. When students get in trouble, he is careful about how he speaks to parents to enlist their help. It requires finesse.
“Sometimes, we don’t communicate effectively with parents. Through our words or demeanor, we may put parents on the defensive quickly,” he says. That’s why, when he gets in touch with parents, Sakamoto assures them that he is calling about “what’s going on” with their child, not about discipline. His goal is to get them to agree to address the matter together, using one of the counseling or other wrap-around resources offered.
Asking for and finding ways to get support requires creativity. A survey conducted by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center for Quality Counts 2013 shows that many educators in the highest-poverty schools believe that parents there aren’t supportive of teachers. In schools where the proportion of low-income families is 75 percent or higher, only about 7 percent of educators strongly agree that teachers get adequate support from parents. Where low-income students account for 25 percent or less of the population, just over a quarter strongly agree.
Finding effective ways to involve parents is key. Adelman, of the School Mental Health Project, knows parents can successfully be brought into schools to affect safety. He reports that when he and his colleagues began working with the Elizabeth Learning Center in Los Angeles, an initiative was undertaken to help parents by providing citizenship training, adult education, and a day-care co-op run by parents.
“Pretty soon, the district was saying, ‘We’re no longer going to send you a security officer—the data shows your incidents have dropped off dramatically.’ Having so many parents on campus,” he says, “had completely changed the climate there.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at.