One way to make schools better: Help kids feel safe and respected

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 2:12 p.m. MST

Growing recognition that a school's social and disciplinary atmosphere has profound impact on student achievement has prompted shifts in federal education policy.

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Efforts to improve school achievement tend to focus on things like academic rigor, testing, teacher quality and technology. Those are all important, but a new report says we've been overlooking a key factor for students' academic success: how safe, engaged and respected kids feel at their schools. And in that regard, all schools are not created equal.

School climate is the focus of the 17th edition of Education Week's annual Quality Counts report — how security, social environment and disciplinary policies affect students' ability to learn.

"Those factors, along with resources and the ability of school staff members to meet students' needs, are seen as especially important for low-performing schools and at-risk students," the report said.

Growing recognition that a school's social and disciplinary atmosphere has profound impact on student achievement has prompted shifts in federal education policy.

Those include school climate grants awarded to 11 states, national programs on bullying awareness and prevention, and a partnership among federal agencies meant to change the way schools discipline students, said an executive summary of the Quality Counts report in Education Week.

Although most U.S. states (45) have anti-bullying policies, only 24 have comprehensive school climate policies, said a new report from the National School Climate Center.

The report defines four essential dimensions of school climate: social, emotional and physical safety; students and faculty working together toward a shared school vision; engagement and respect; and institutional environment, including physical surroundings.

Around the nation, educators have chimed in with ideas about creating healthy school climates that foster achievement. Raise expectations, said Clinton L. Robinson Jr., a North Carolina school superintendant. During a former job as a school principal in a gang-infested school, Robinson did just that.

"Students were not allowed to wear hats; sagging pants; or revealing, provocative, or other inappropriate clothing on campus," Robinson wrote. "Frustrated with students' excuses for not having a belt, I drove nearly 500 miles to New York City's garment district, purchased 800 belts, and handed one to every student who 'sagged,' accompanied by a lesson in history and the value of self-pride."

Students were reprimanded for inappropriate language, and taught how to express the same sentiment correctly. Students with D's and F's were required to attend tutorials and forgo extracurricular activities for a week. Academic achievement soared.

Education analyst Candi Cushman, who writes for Focus on the Family, addressed the topic of keeping communication lines open between schools, parents and communities.

Incidents in which students hurt or bully other students can be reduced by involving parents in workshops focused on the school's efforts to maintain discipline, she wrote.

"The best strategies for maintaining school safety and positive climates must include ongoing communication with parents and communitywide efforts to strengthen families," Cushman wrote. "It's also why we support policies that send the core message to children that they are worthy of protection from harm and have inherent worth as human beings, regardless of how society might classify them economically, socially or otherwise.

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