School Climate & Safety

States Use School Score Cards to Target Climate Problems

March 26, 2013 8 min read
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Accountability isn’t just for academics anymore.

In 11 states, a new score card for high schools has been designed to measure school climate in an attempt to put safety and discipline, student engagement, and students’ connection to school on the same footing as their performance in mathematics and reading. The new report cards or indices—which must be posted online in an easy-to-find place—are based on a combination of student, staff-member, and parent perceptions of school climate and hard data on discipline, attendance, graduation, and dropout rates.

States are enacting the new measures with support from roughly $37 million in Safe and Supportive School—or S3—grants won three years ago from the U.S. Department of Education.

“This project has brought climate to the forefront,” said Kim Schanock, a social worker at West High School in Green Bay, Wis. She oversees the S3 grant project for all four of the Green Bay district’s high schools.

While schools there and across the country may already have been addressing climate-related issues to an extent, academic initiatives driven by student-achievement data have always taken precedence in the past.

Balancing Priorities

Especially as states tackle the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the balance between addressing the conditions necessary for students to learn and what students are actually learning has become more difficult to strike. The S3 grants aim to eliminate the need to prioritize one or the other.

Winning states chose high schools—about 400 in all—at which to administer anonymous climate surveys that ask about a collection of issues, such as whether students feel there is an adult they connect with on campus, if students have experienced or witnessed bullying, and if they have used drugs or alcohol recently. The states are now using the bulk of the grant money to implement specific evidence-based interventions to address the problems revealed by the surveys and the data on student discipline and graduation rates collected from the schools. Schools will give the surveys at least until the grant ends next school year. Some will be able to query their students annually now that the survey instruments have been developed, and in many states, the surveys are now available for any school to use, albeit without the money to respond to the findings.

Anonymous school climate surveys are not new, nor is the separate tracking of school discipline statistics, though for years, the two sets of information were collected and circulated in independent orbits. Typically in the past, those data were used to inform officials about what needed to stop occurring at their schools or were collected but not acted on.

Grant-Supported Interventions

Eleven states were awarded federal Safe and Supportive School grants in 2010. They must spend 80 percent of their grant money on interventions at low-performing high schools to address concerns raised by school climate surveys and student-suspension and -behavior data.

ARIZONA $5.9 million
CALIFORNIA $2.2 million
IOWA $3.5 million
KANSAS $2.4 million
LOUISIANA $3.2 million
MARYLAND $3.1 million
MICHIGAN $6.0 million
SOUTH CAROLINA $1.7 million
TENNESSEE $3.3 million
WEST VIRGINIA $2.2 million
WISCONSIN $3.5 million

Note: Dollar amounts are rounded.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

The Safe and Supportive School grant work is intended to help schools continue to dissuade students from making poor choices and behaving improperly, and also to promote measures that are working, said David Osher. He is the principal investigator at the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, which is overseeing the grant program, and a vice president of the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, where he is an expert on school climate.

“It’s that subtle but not unimportant difference between not staying home [from school] because you’re scared but wanting to be there because it’s an exciting, supportive place,” Mr. Osher said. “It’s really understanding that what you want to do is create emotionally safe and supportive conditions in school so people work together better and learn better together.”

In recent testimony before a U.S. House of Representatives committee about school safety, Mr. Osher noted that in the 3½ months since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., he has been collaborating with other branches of the federal Education Department that address school safety and emergency response.

“That work doesn’t begin and end with preventing a horrible thing from happening,” he said. When students feel comfortable talking to adults at their schools, they are more likely to share information about planned events of violence, episodes of bullying, and other issues that can affect school safety.

“This [grant program] was the first attempt at this benchmark—really measuring in some tangible way—school climate, and then blending that with incident data like attendance, referrals, suspensions, then saying, ‘Here are areas that need to be addressed,’ ” said Sandy Keenan Williamson, the director of the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments.

Surprising Findings

The competitive S3 grants replaced larger, formula-based chunks of money that every state received in the past for enhancing school safety and drug prevention. Another indication of how much the federal government values school climate endeavors: In the plan to improve school and community safety that President Barack Obama unveiled after the Newtown shootings, he recommended a $50 million initiative to help 8,000 schools train teachers and other staff members to implement evidence-based strategies to improve school climate, among other proposals. The president said his administration also will devise a school climate survey designed to provide reliable data to help schools implement policies to improve climate.

A few of the 11 state S3 grantees have a long history of using a tool to measure student and staff perceptions of school climate, including California and Kansas. For other grant-winning states, such as West Virginia, the survey process was entirely new.

Scoring Student Perceptions

The states asked students, staff members, and parents an array of questions that were answered anonymously. The results factored into schools’ climate scores and were the basis for interventions. Among the questions:

Answer one of the following:
not at all true, a little true, pretty much true, or very much true.

At my school, there is a teacher or some other adult ...
1. Who really cares about me.
2. Who tells me when I do a good job.
3. Who notices when I’m not there.
4. Who always wants me to do my best.
5. Who listens to me when I have something to say.
6. Who believes that I will be a success.

Answer strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree to the following:

1. Students in my school treat each other with respect.
2. Students have friends at school they can turn to if they have questions about homework.
3. Students have friends at school they can trust and talk to if they have problems.
4. Students generally work well with each other even if they’re not in the same group of friends.
5. Students have friends at school to eat lunch with.
6. Students try to make new students feel welcome in the school.

Answer strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree to the following:

1. I feel safe…
__At this school.
__Going to and from this school.

2. How do you usually get to and from school?
__Ride the bus
__Ride in a car driven by a parent
__Drive yourself

SOURCES: California, Iowa, and Maryland Education Departments

At some participating schools, administrators suspected one thing was a problem yet found students saw something else to be an issue.

“There were a lot of surprises,” said Andrea Alexander, the specialist for school climate initiatives in Maryland who oversees that state’s S3 program. “People are learning things from this data.”

A number of schools have found that problems are best addressed by instituting a formal anti-bullying program or training teachers in restorative practices to work on changing students’ behavior. Many schools are adopting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, which addresses both student behavior and students’ engagement in school, or pieces of that approach.

Changing Policies

For example, in Maryland, Ms. Alexander said, some schools are taking cues from PBIS by asking teachers or other staff members to check in with particular students every morning to see how they are doing and do so again before school lets out. In other cases, teachers have been asked to mentor students who seem disengaged or disconnected. The grant provides money for a stipend for those teachers.

At schools in Arizona with large numbers of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, administrators have changed their procedures to cut down on disciplinary actions that eject students from school.

“Suspensions were being handed out very loosely,” said Jean Ajamie, the director of school safety and prevention for the Arizona education department, “as though that’s going to change behavior and help that student.” At these schools, the intervention—an overhaul of school disciplinary procedures—"is a reduction in the problem behavior of the administration.”

Out-of-school suspension rates are dropping in some schools already, she said, a first step toward improving student engagement and, in the long run, academic performance.

At other schools, formal intervention efforts are being coupled with very small changes that administrators believe could have a profound effect on students’ school experience—or that students have asked for specifically.

Students at one Louisiana high school, for example, reported that they simply wanted their teachers to occasionally offer them a smile, so now, teachers make a point to do that. At another, teachers occasionally send postcards to parents about positive school moments, connecting with those who are used to hearing nothing from the school or only hearing something when there’s a problem.

Teachers in some of the Green Bay schools, Ms. Schanock said, are being trained in a classroom-management model, and school aides who monitor the hallways and cafeterias, escort students around campus, and stand watch in study halls are being trained in calming a situation in which a student may begin behaving improperly. The training was a direct result of a close examination of schools’ out-of-school suspension data.

“Our most frontline staff often have the least training,” Ms. Schanock said.

As a result of the grant program, some schools have also invested in additional supports for students moving from middle to high school, a time when many can become lost in the shuffle and begin skipping school, falling behind, and ultimately, dropping out.

Others have created youth-leadership teams to attract students who aren’t naturally inclined to be involved in school activities.

“We wanted students [who were] experiencing specific barriers to their education,” said Cyndy Erickson, a consultant to the Iowa education department who oversees state’s grant. These teams may include teenage parents, students with disabilities, and students who had dropped out of school.

While every Iowa school involved in the program faces different issues, student engagement—or a lack of it—showed up as a factor nearly everywhere. The student teams can advise administrators about student needs, Ms. Erickson said, and simultaneously, they can build relationships with adults at their schools, another critical area of need illuminated by the climate surveys. And as in other states, schools are asking teachers to make an effort to get to know students better, greeting them in the morning and wading into the hallways during class changes.

“It’s not necessarily a special program,” she said. “It’s just those simple things.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as States’ Score Cards Pinpoint Problems of School Climate


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