Articles in the School Climate category

The week in blogs

Here are two unsettling statistics on school discipline, based on an unprecedented study of nearly 1 million Texas secondary school students: Nearly 60 percent of these children were suspended or expelled over the course of the six-year study, and African-American students were disproportionately disciplined for infractions that the researchers described as “discretionary” – that is, the school had the option of not suspending or expelling the student but chose the harsher path.

As it turns out, it’s not as much the behavior of the students that leads to vastly different kinds of discipline, says the study by The Council of State Government’s Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute. It’s the policies of school leaders.

“The bottom line is that schools can get different outcomes with very similar student bodies,” Michael D. Thompson, a co-author of the report, told the Washington Post. “School superintendents and teachers can have a dramatic impact.”

To that list we should also add school board members, who hire the superintendent and, through their policy-making decisions, have significant authority over the way schools handle discipline.

The day after that report was made public, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder issued a new Supportive School Discipline Initiative that aims to dismantle the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” that pushes students into the juvenile justice system for school infractions that could be handled in other ways.

Citing the Texas report and the high number of suspensions and expulsions it found, Holder said, “I think these numbers are kind of a wake-up call. It’s obvious we can do better.”

In yet another critical look at school discipline, journalist Annette Fuentes, in her new book, Lockdown High, examines the heightened national concern about school safety – and its negative consequences – since 9/11 and Columbine.

“The Columbine scenario is terrifying, but the odds of it occurring in your hometown are about one in two million,” Fuentes told the Post.

In a later interview, she makes another point that is well known to most school board members: School is among the safest places for children and young people to be.

So how about those ultra-safe playgrounds, with nothing too high or too hard, too fast or too rickety? Not good for kids, says Ellen Sandseter, a professor of psychology at Queen Maud University of Norway. Yes, they may prevent a few physical injuries (and even that is open to debate) but the psychological toll – in children becoming more fearful because they’re not given the chance to adequately explore their world — outweighs the benefits, she says in a New York Times article.

So too safe is bad – psychologically. What about too extravagant, for example, the $248,000 playhouse a former CEO built for his grandchildren? Not a great idea, notes the Post’s Ruth Marcus. Could make for overly indulged, uncreative kids. Imagine that?

At least that’s one problem cashed-strapped school districts don’t have to worry about.

Lawrence Hardy|July 22nd, 2011|Categories: Reports, School Climate, School Security, Teachers, Uncategorized, Week in Blogs|Tags: , , , , , , |

Schools, the cornerstone of a community

800px-LittleRedSchoolhouse1913-RestoredIf you’re planning on coming to music and arts night at my daughter’s elementary school, better get there early — way early – because it’ll be standing room only.  And that’s five or 10 minutes before the show even starts.

“Parent involvement run amok!” I like to call it, and, of course, I’m being facetious, because it’s wonderful that so many parents in this Washington, D.C., suburb, care so deeply about their children’s education and that of others in their community.

It’s not like that everywhere. And that’s not because parents in inner city Newark, N.J., or Cleveland, or Detroit,  or St. Louis don’t care about their children and their communities.  But it’s hard for many parents to make it to school events when they’re working two jobs and just trying to pay for food and rent.

My point is this: Our elementary school has become a “community school” of sorts by default.  The parents make it that way.  But schools in many areas – the ones that most need to be vibrant centers of their communities – these schools need our help and financial support more than ever.

That’s the message that the Coalition of Community Schools and its supporters across the country will be emphasizing at the National Community Schools Advocacy Day, June 10 and 11 in Washington. The Coalition is rallying in support of three bills in Congress that would make community school principles a centerpiece of any reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

A community school is one that is concerned about the “whole” child and his or her environment. And it either houses or has links to community resources that address family needs.  A model school I wrote about four years ago, George Washington Community School in Indianapolis, includes a health clinic, a mental health clinic and about 50 partnerships to support families and the community.
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Naomi Dillon|May 25th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, Policy Formation, School Climate|

In Minnesota, nearly half of students report being bullied

0001-0405-0521-2248_TNYou don’t have to be a Prairie Home Companion fan to have heard Garrison Keillor’s famous description of Lake Wobegon, that mythical Minnesota town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Everyone knows it’s impossible for all children to be “above average,” yet we believe somewhere in our hearts that maybe ours are different.  Or that maybe there’s a place – bucolic Minnesota perhaps? – where all the children are doing just great and aren’t touched by the kind of social problems that plague the rest of us.

A recent survey on bullying by the Minnesota Department of Education puts those fantasies to rest. It seems some problems are, indeed, national in scope; and, unfortunately, bullying is one of them.

According to the survey, “more than half of Minnesota students reported they had been bullied or had bullied someone else at least once in the past year,” said the Associated Press. And 13 percent said they were bullied once a week or more.

According to the survey, bullies and their victims were more likely to skip school, less likely to have As or Bs, and more than twice as likely to be obese as students not involved in bullying. And they had higher rates of alcohol and drug use.

“On a positive, note, nearly half of all students responding had no involvement with bullying as a victim or bully,” the report said. “This group benefits from not being a target or engaging in bullying activities, but also seems to be supported by assets in home, school, community, and peer contexts.”

ASBJ has written many stories on bullying and how schools can confront the problem. The most recent was my December 2010 piece on harassment of gay students.

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|May 17th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Governance, School Climate|Tags: , |

ED announces Green Ribbon Schools program

You’ve heard of Blue Ribbon Schools, now the U.S. Department of Education is launching a new program, Green Ribbon Schools, that will recognize the efforts and intiatives of schools that adopt, promote, and teach environmental sustainability.

From graduating environmentally literate students to reducing their carbon footprints, schools that best exemplify America’s move toward a sustainable economy will be awarded this prestigious honor — and in the process protect and save valuable resources.
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Naomi Dillon|April 27th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Governance, School Buildings, School Climate|Tags: , |

“It takes a school system” — and then some

Call it “Disneyland Brain,” but when I returned from a two-and-a-half-week trip that included NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, three days of reporting on the Long Beach schools, and a family vacation to the famous Anaheim theme park, among other places, I was at a loss to identify the Conference Daily story I wrote that our analysis said was getting a lot of hits.

The story was slugged: “Rivers.”

Rivers?” I thought, trying to place it. Like other ASBJ editors, I covered three or four sessions a day, on everything from dual-emersion elementary schools to the most significant education-related court cases of the past year.

“Rivers,” it turns out, didn’t have anything to do — at least, directly — with the business of running a school system. It was a lunchtime speech by actor Victor Rivas Rivers, who has made highlighting the problem of domestic violence a personal goal. It is a quest born of personal experience.

Rivers said his father was a charming man — in public. In private he was an abuser who terrorized Rivers’ mother, beat him and his brothers, and even harassed the family pets.  Rivers eventually escaped his punisher through the help of a series of families who took him in, and a variety of people in the school district, including a teacher who secretly gave him a meal ticket when Rivers’ father was limiting him to one meal a day.
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Lawrence Hardy|April 26th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Diversity, Dropout Prevention, Educational Research, Governance, Homeless People, Policy Formation, School Climate, Student Achievement, Urban Schools|

Go green to save some green

recycle-greenWe all know that embracing energy efficiency is better for the planet, but did you know it could also be better for your school’s budget?

Last week, two 17 year-old environmental activists from California traveled clear across the country to speak at the Power Shift conference in D.C. and meet with Aneesh Chopra, the Chief Technology Officer in the White House.

Shreya Indukuri and Daniela Lapidous, both members of the Alliance for Climate Education’s youth advisor board,  emphasized the importance of energy efficiency in schools, explaining that burning fossil fuels and using excess energy emits additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which helps to trap heat on Earth. Such human activities are some of the main causes of global warming.  

After The Harker Upper School in San Jose, Ca., was awarded an ACE grant in 2009, the students initiated the installation of a Smart Submeter system on their campus. The resource measures energy usage in each building throughout the day and creates a corresponding visual map, so administrators can see where and when activities are highest.   

As a result, the school has seen a 250 percent return on investment, and a 13 percent decrease in energy over the course of the past two years, Lapidous said.
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Naomi Dillon|April 25th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Governance, School Buildings, School Climate|Tags: , |

Role playing not always the best method for teaching race relations

1863lithograph_locNow I’m all for hands-on classroom activities…but holding a mock slave auction? I can’t think of a more politically incorrect and offensive idea.

At the beginning of the month, one fourth grade teacher in Virginia lined her students up according to race—Whites on one side and Blacks, Latinos and other minority races on the other. Then the “buying” and “selling” began, the Washington Post reports.

Apparently she didn’t learn from the mistakes of an elementary school Ohio teacher, who was heavily reprimanded in March for a similar classroom role playing scenario.

An involved African-American fifth grade student explained to the local news station that he felt embarrassed, insulted and angered by the mock slave auction. His classmates were even allowed to examine his teeth and body to determine his strength and suitability, methods used by slave owners in the 1800s.

Well, obviously the poor boy was humiliated! His white classmates were encouraged to make him feel helpless, weak and subservient. Clearly this would taint his feelings about education. Maybe this kind of lesson would work in a world where racial discrimination was unheard of, or null and void. But clearly this is not the case.

Furthermore, as eight and nine year old kids, these students still don’t fully understand race relations or discrimination. Feelings from the set-up will remain far after the history lesson is lost. White students will recall feeling strong and powerful—and maybe this will encourage them to belittle minorities again. Black students will recall their pain and want to avoid it—perhaps even by skipping class in the future.
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Naomi Dillon|April 18th, 2011|Categories: American School Board Journal, Curriculum, Governance, School Climate|Tags: , |

Making your schools more ‘welcoming’

“In Berkeley, we’ve always embraced diversity,” said Karen Hemphill, Berkeley Unified School District Board Member, at the Monday morning session at Annual Conference on “Welcoming Schools: A system-wide approach to family diversity, gender, and bullying.” Hemphill added, “Within that diversity, we have families with diverse points of view, including families that do not embrace all kinds of families.”

In order to strengthen what the district was doing to make sure their schools would be safe and nurturing, including changing their anti-bullying and tolerance policy and approach, the Berkeley school board adopted the Welcoming Schools program a year ago as a board mandate for kindergarten through fifth grade.

Welcoming Schools is a school climate program that was developed with the support of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRCF) by parents and educators who wanted a tool that would make schools inclusive of  lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender families, as well as adoptive families, single parent families, and foster families to name a few. 

Kim Westheimer, director of Welcoming Schools at HRCF, described the components of the program, which are:  Establish leadership/ training for educators; community forums for parents/guardians; lesson plans (which are aligned with academic and social/emotional standards), and evaluation. She shared findings of the three-year pilot program with the San Francisco Unified School District, Minneapolis Public Schools, and New Bedford (Mass.) School District. 

“Sixty percent of participants reported climate improvement,” said Westheimer, “educators felt more equipped to teach lessons on gender, anti-gay bullying and family diversity; there was increased attention to addressing diversity, and increased belief in the benefit of the lessons for all children.” Also found in pre- and post-assessments were a decrease in fear of parental and religious objections. “Involving parents in implementation helped temper the fears,” said Westheimer.

Berkeley USD partners with Our Family Coalition, a community organization, whose executive director, Judy Appel said “Berkeley was the first place in the country to adopt Welcoming Schools district wide.

Neil Smith, assistant superintendent, described how the program was tested in three district schools, and at the same time they began a system of looking at the curriculum and creating advocates for it. They established a district leadership group that included parents, teachers, and administrators.”A first major step was ensuring that teachers understood this was important.” Smith added, “We held parent community-building events to increase understanding among families.”

“The material can be really challenging for a lot of folks,” said Appel, “There often are questions from parents and concerns. We’ve found the best way is to talk about it with parents in community.” She explained that none of the lessons are gay-lesbian specific, but they are inclusive. “We learned that parents want to feel prepared to discuss what the children are learning.” 

A school board member from Alberta, Canada, asked “How do we know we’re making a difference?” Smith responded, “We’re keeping track of referrals, but it’s hard to tease out which component in a large system of building effective schools is making a specific difference.” Other questions revolved around the cost of Welcoming Schools, which is minimal aside from purchasing specific library books. And training and technical assistance is available from HRCF.

“The cost of not doing this will be far greater down the line,” said a board member.

Brenda Z. Greene

Erin Walsh|April 11th, 2011|Categories: NSBA Annual Conference 2011, School Board News, School Climate|

Making your school safe for LGBT students

The Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) recommended four evidence-based strategies on addressing anti-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) bullying in schools. “Supportive student groups; supportive school staff; inclusive curriculum, and comprehensive policies and state laws,” said Jenny Betz, education manager for GLSEN.

Betz and GLSEN public policy director Shawn Gaylord presented findings from the organization’s most recent National School Climate Survey, personal stories from students, and state policy information to drive home the need to make the school environment safer and more supportive for these students at an Annual Conference session Sunday.

Betz and Gaylord followed an opening video featuring Dustin Rader, a transgender student who came out to his family and school while in high school, and the personal story of a parent of a transgender child shared by Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. The latter urged school board members to make sure that LGBT students are not harassed, bullied, or hurt in any way because of their differences.

Sunday’s session was first presented at last year’s NSBA conference in Chicago. “The session was of great interest to school leaders last year, and with the high visibility suicides of students who were bullied or harassed over the last several months, several related to their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Brenda Z. Greene, NSBA director of school health and moderator for the session, “we knew it would be important to present it again.”

Highlights of the data presented by GLSEN include that nearly a third of the 61 percent of LGBT students who reported feeling unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation missed class at least once and missed at least one day of school in the last month. “Those students aren’t in school learning and are costing districts revenue,” said Betz.

“The effects of a hostile school climate,” she said, “have poorer educational outcomes, including decreased educational aspirations, sense of school belonging, and academic achievement, and increased absenteeism.”

Gaylord explained the two approaches to safe schools laws: anti-bullying laws and nondiscrimination laws. “While states are passing these laws,” said Gaylord, “so are local districts.” Maps showing which states have adopted these laws can be found on GLSEN’s website.

Audience questions addressed a transgender accommodation request for a 5-year-old, managing political controversy associated with supporting Gay-Straight Alliances at a high school, and more. GLSEN staff is available for more discussion and to share materials at Booth 1518.

Erin Walsh|April 10th, 2011|Categories: Bullying, FRN Conference 2011, NSBA Annual Conference 2011, School Board News, School Climate|

Advice for district lawyers on OCR guidance

The Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) “Dear Colleague” letter that outlines guidance on school bullying and harassment is not consistent with court decisions, attendees of the Council of School Attorneys’ School Law Seminar heard at a session on April 7.

The guidance “doesn’t reflect high court precedent or the consensus of the circuit courts,” said Todd Clark and Karla Schultz, attorneys with Walsh, Anderson, Brown, Gallegos, and Green.

The dilemma for districts is that they can be sued by both the victim and the perpetrator depending on what actions they take. Perpetrators can say the district violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech.

Clark and Schultz had five suggestions for school district lawyers dealing with the OCR guidance.

1. Follow OCR guidance, despite its broad sweep.

2. Focus on protected classes under federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

3. Using actual or reasonable forecasts of substantial disruptions is the best guiding principle.

4. Don’t do nothing, but don’t do too much – in investigations and actions. Do what’s appropriate and document what you do.

5. Have respected anti-bullying programs in place.

“If we are just paying attention to bullying conduct and bullying policy only, we may be ignoring what is unlawful discriminatory conduct of students toward each other,” said Clark. “Schools must do more than discipline the bully. They must make sure what they do is effective.”

Kathleen Vail|April 8th, 2011|Categories: Bullying, NSBA Annual Conference 2011, School Board News, School Climate|
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