How’s Your School Culture? ESSA Says It’s Important, but Only 1 in 3 Students Nationwide Think It’s Good

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When California sixth-grader Quinton was being disruptive in class, his teacher, Mr. Armstrong, didn’t yell. Instead, he took Quinton outside the room and asked what was wrong. His teacher didn’t get mad, and he kept his voice soft. “I can tell you’re having a bad day,” he said. “Just try to calm down.”

That’s how Quinton, a student at Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, remembers a teacher intervening to help rather than discipline him. “It changed my day because I could tell that he cared a lot about his students and stuff,” Quinton said.

Katherine Smith is one of the schools that participate in surveys of students across the country that are conducted by a nonprofit called YouthTruth. Since YouthTruth began asking Katherine Smith students about their school, administrators have changed disciplinary policies, taken steps to help kids address bullying, and implemented circle time to check in on social-emotional issues. As a result, the school culture has markedly improved.

But according to a new YouthTruth report, positive learning environments aren’t the norm in U.S. schools. Only one-third of 80,000 students in 24 states in grades 5 to 12 rated their school’s culture as positive. Half of students found their school culture neither positive nor negative, while 18 percent called it negative.

YouthTruth’s executive director, Jen Vorse Wilka, said she was not surprised by the results, adding that culture is one of the hardest things to change in school or the workplace. “Of all of the different themes that we ask about in the survey, school culture is the theme that when we look at absolute ratings, they’re the lowest,” she said. “Across the board, everyone struggles with this.”

The main findings:

  • Age gap: 37 percent of middle school students rated their school culture positively, versus 30 percent of high schoolers.

  • Racial divide: African-American students were least likely to say discipline is fair in their school, at 28 percent, while Asian students were most likely to say discipline is fair, at 49 percent. White (39 percent), Hispanic (39 percent), and multiracial (34 percent) students made up the middle.

  • Respect is a one-way street: 57 percent of students said most adults in the school treat them with respect, while 34 percent of students said most students treat adults with respect.

  • Gender matters: Students who don’t identify as male or female had the lowest opinion of school culture, at 16 percent, while 35 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls rated their school’s culture positively.

Many schools are realizing that it’s time to change their approach to the culture of their campus, especially in terms of how respect is conveyed between students and educators. The new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind, should make this easier to do — no longer are schools focused primarily on test scores, because ESSA encourages schools to measure social-emotional learning or school culture as well.

In turn, this should affect school performance: Studies have shown that a positive school climate boosts academic achievement and self-esteem and reduces absenteeism and violence.

“Kids have to feel safe to even walk in the door,” said Susan Osborn, principal at The Big Picture School in LaFayette, N.Y., which participated in the YouthTruth survey. “So if it’s a climate where you’re unsure what’s going to be said to you or if anyone is going to say good morning to you, how will the lunch line affect you, what happens when you have to go to PE and you’re not that athletic, so I think school climate, if it’s negative, creates school avoiders, and then if you’re avoiding school, then you’re not growing academically.”

Katherine Smith joined YouthTruth more than three years ago, following a schoolwide redesign to focus on project-based learning. Since then, the school’s average culture rating, as judged by its students, has risen from 2.28 to 2.44 out of 3.

Principal Aaron Brengard gathered four of his students around a phone to share their thoughts about their school’s culture with The 74. Brengard said he hoped the survey would tell him how students were achieving real-world skills like persisting in the face of challenges, working as a team, and managing impulses.

The four students said they felt respected by their teachers but disagreed about the best way to approach them about conflicts with other students. Brengard said 31 percent of his students had reported being teased or called names.

Emily listed the official school steps that should be taken if students have conflicts with their peers: Ask the perpetrator to stop; get an adult to intervene if that doesn’t happen.

But Quinton pointed out a flaw in that process: Not every student wants to tell on a peer. “I had a friend, he was shy, but he didn’t want to tell ’cause he didn’t want the person bullying him to figure out, ’cause it could get a lot worse,” he said. Still, Quinton said, the problem got better after he encouraged his friend to report the bullying to a teacher.

(The 74: 80,000 Kids Just Replied to a Survey About Bullying. Here’s What Surprised Their Educators Most)

Angelica said shyness can be a problem, but she recounted an instance in which asking a teacher to help resolve a conflict had enabled her and the other student to become friends.

When it comes to discipline, Brengard said, the school tries to follow a restorative model. Students who are sent to the office must fill out a form that guides them to reflect on what happened and who was affected, allowing them to de-escalate.

“I was kind of worried, but it helped me out,” Devin said, describing the process of sitting down with the form. “It helped me think about what I just did and how to make it not happen again.”

And for every student a teacher refers for discipline, Brengard encourages his educators to find two examples of positive behavior that merit rewards.

Educators also try to keep discipline fair by checking for possible bias against students they refer for discipline. The practice was developed five years ago, when administrators noticed that the suspension rate was disproportionately high among Latinos. In addition, Brengard tries to hire faculty who reflect student demographics, though he admitted this can be a challenge amid teacher shortages.

The students also talked about what they think makes a school culture positive: Quinton and Angelica both valued technology, like Chromebooks and iPads, saying it made learning more enjoyable and understandable. Devin valued the break provided by their two recesses. Emily said she wanted to feel like her teachers believe in her, especially in her ability to go to college.

Many of the students at Katherine Smith do believe their teachers want them to do their best. On a scale of 1 to 3, the kids gave the school a 2.91 on how much teachers care. But when Brengard used YouthTruth’s data to look at other schools’ results, he found that a score of 2.91 put the school just under the 50th percentile compared with similar schools.

“It was an eye-opening thing,” he said. “This is one of those data points that is worth getting 100 percent.”

In Orange County, California, the Fullerton Independent School District has been implementing behavioral expectations known as PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, based on feedback from both in-house and external surveys around school culture conducted over the past five years. Superintendent Bob Pletka said that in district schools that have used PBIS for longer, YouthTruth survey results came back more positive.

“Consistency, that’s a huge thing,” Pletka said. “Because then all the teachers and all staff members are operating under a certain system which says, ‘This is the action the child took, and this is the response to it.’ I think there’s a sense of fairness, that kids, people see and recognize when something is fair and consistent.”

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