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Improving school character: climate change that helps

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 10:29 p.m. MDT

The Quality Counts survey of more than 1,300 school-level administrators and educators found that 74 percent of respondents felt school climate is "very important" to student achievement.  (Shutterstock) The Quality Counts survey of more than 1,300 school-level administrators and educators found that 74 percent of respondents felt school climate is "very important" to student achievement. (Shutterstock)

East Harlem's Central Park East High School was in trouble eight years ago. It wasn't just the school's low academic achievement, though that was awful too. The school's real problem, according to its principal, was it's whole atmosphere.

Once a respected school in East Harlem, Central Park East had been sucker-punched by mismanagement, leaving the once-proud campus dilapidated, under-funded through administrative neglect, under-attended and under-achieving.

Today, the school is an entirely different place. Its graduation rate has grown from around 35 percent eight years ago to 86 percent last year. Post-secondary enrollment has grown from near nil to 58 percent of graduates.

In a recent online forum, school principal Bennett Lieberman explained that turning Central Park East into the successful, award-winning school required more than strengthening academic focus, and said there was no one-shot solution. The school's overall climate needed to change — and in time, it did. When the school became a place students wanted to be, academic improvements followed. But it took buy-in from the student body to make that happen.

School climate is the major topic of the 2013 "Quality Counts" report from Education Week, the national newspaper of record for K-12 education. The report examined issues surrounding school climate — the interplay of social relationships, safety and security policies, and effective disciplinary procedures that lay the groundwork for academic success. One conclusion was that students can be important allies in improving schools.

Climate change

The Quality Counts survey of more than 1,300 school-level administrators and educators found that 74 percent of respondents felt school climate is "very important" to student achievement. It's a point backed up by numerous research groups, such as Columbia University's Center for Social and Emotional Education, which reported that a growing body of research attests to school climate's important role "in a variety of overlapping ways, including social and physical safety, and higher graduation rates and academic achievement."

About 80 percent of survey respondents said their schools have adopted a concerted approach to managing student behavior. The study also found poverty levels have a strong influence on school climate. Educators in more affluent schools are about twice as likely to say their school's climate fosters teaching and learning, and that it supports social and emotional well-being, compared with high-poverty schools. Furthermore, teachers in more affluent schools were four times as likely to report that students are well-behaved, compared with high-poverty schools.

At Central Park East, where 85 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, those poverty statistics apply. And, in 2005, when Lieberman came to the school, the miseries of growing up poor were compounded by widespread frustration about the school's downward slide.

"That resulted in our school culture or climate as being one of chaos and anger," said Lieberman. "Everyone was really, really angry, because they knew what the school had been, and they knew what the school was at the time."

The next three years were a time of "triage," Lieberman said — a time for sorting out difficulties, making the school sparkle, and getting kids to buy in to making their school a better place.

"It's really hard to get kids to own the climate of their school if they don't feel respected by what we're providing for them," he said.

As a failing school, Central Park East had been forced to reorganize its problems, and that gave Lieberman a budget for changes and a chance to hire the best teachers he could find — something he considers critical to his school's eventual success.

"We treated every hiring decision like it was our most important hiring decision ever, because it was," he said. "We knew the people we brought into the school were going to be the ones responsible for improving the culture and the climate on behalf of the students. Even one mistake in hiring can really set you back."

Student voice

After creating a counseling department focused on guiding students toward college, the next step was to get students involved in improving their school. An array of programs were instituted to support what he calls "student voice" — the Peer Group Connection character program, Girls Inc., New York City's Expanded Success Initiative, and more. College Summit, a national non-profit group that helps high schools raise college enrollment by building college-going culture, became one of his favorites.

The program concentrates on identifying student "influencers" — whether academically gifted or not — and giving them leadership training concentrated on college preparation. Those key students then become positive role models to their peers, helping them to see college as a viable life option, and to take the necessary steps to get there.

Efforts to improve Central Park East were multi-pronged, a fact that likely played into their success. Schools needing to improve their essential character often target a single issue, such as bullying, that is really only the tip of an iceberg, said Meagan O'Malley, a research associate at WestEd, an education research agency, also via webinar. Success requires aiming at multiple targets, and the effort pays off, she said.

Improving school climate also improves students' motivation and sense of connectedness," O'Malley said, and makes students more willing to report potential threats to safety at school. A healthy school climate — marked by good interpersonal relationships, effective teaching and leadership, and sound organization — increases teacher satisfaction and retention, too, O'Malley said.

Breaking the code

In the California town of Indio, a new technology is being used at Shadow Hills High School to get students involved in preventing violence, bullying, and cyber-bullying, sexual harassment, vandalism and other problems that damage school climate.

TalkAboutIt is an anonymous communication system that students can access in a way that is second nature for their generation — online and through texting. More than a tip line, the system enables a student to have an anonymous two-way conversation with a counselor, administrator or teacher with whom he or she chooses to communicate. The software tabulates and categorizes student communications, allowing administrators to spot trends and hot spots — such as a growing problem with gangs, drugs or fighting, or a teacher who makes students feel uncomfortable.

Shadow Hills principal Marcus Wood said the program allows his students to break the unwritten code of silence that keeps kids from going to the school counselor to report a problem, or telling a teacher — and to do it without social repercussions.

To familiarize students with using the system, he made it the method of tabulating votes for king and queen of a school dance. Soon, other messages began arriving.

"A students sent me one just this weekend, about cheating in a classroom," he said. "He didn't feel comfortable telling the teacher, but he gave me all the details. I shared that with the teacher so they can address the problem. And, I responded to the kid, and thanked him for doing that."

Wood is particularly pleased when students head off potential problems.

"If the fight doesn't happen, nobody is in trouble," he said. "A lot of times the kid who was supposed to be in the fight is the one sending the message: 'Hey, there is supposed to be a fight at such-and-such time and place.' — We're there, so nobody gets hit, and nobody gets suspended. We create a mediation and address the problem."

In East Harlem, Central Park East student peer leader Malica Brady doesn't need fancy technology to gauge whether efforts to improve her school's climate are working. She can see the improvement.

"I've seen a lot of change in a lot of students," Brady said via webinar. "They want to wake up and go to school. People are looking forward to coming to school."

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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