High Schools, ESEA Reauthorization, and School Climate

A new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education argues that reauthorization of the ESEA must target high schools that repeatedly fail to graduate a third or more of students, or consistently demonstrate low graduation rates among student subgroups.  That targeting should include assessing and improving school climate, which is especially needed in high schools but also more challenging than in lower grades.

More than 1,200 high schools serving 1.1 million youth fail to graduate at least a third of their students.  The Brief’s authors note that federal funding for high school programs has stagnated, decreased, or been eliminated.  They advocate that ESEA reauthorization should ensure states and districts target resources and reforms to “next-generation high schools” that implement new models for school turnaround, expose students to the workforce, and provide students with college credit while in high school.

Among these new models for high school turnaround should be school climate improvement. Research and survey data, including CHKS results, show a pronounced drop in student learning engagement and school connectedness as youth transition from elementary through high school.  There is a concomitant decline in indicators of a positive school climate, including perceived safety and caring adult relationships, and other student supports and services.

Moreover, there is a rise of student involvement in substance use, violence, depression and suicide risk, and other learning barriers that a positive school climate might help mitigate.

The decline in positive relationships with non-parental adults should be especially troubling, as they serve an important function to help students cope with these rising challenges and to transition into adulthood during a time when parental relationships are often weakening.

Several characteristics of high schools make fostering positive school climates more challenging than in lower grades.  Because high schools are larger and faculty is organized around subject matter, there is less connectedness among faculty and it is hard to get a common vision and collaboration.  Teachers are more focused on content knowledge and have less experience around strategies for behavioral and developmental supports.  Finally, assessment of what individual students need to succeed is less centralized.

Despite these challenges, the California Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) initiative demonstrated that significant improvement in high school climate are not only possible but can result in improvement in both safety and academic achievement.

Given these needs and challenges, promoting a positive climate in high schools especially warrants more attention and resources as part of turnaround efforts. The successful efforts of high schools that participated in the California Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) initiative provide a model for how to go about doing this.

Test-Score Accountability and School Climate: More Evidence

A new qualitative case study of a predominantly minority-enrolled, low-performing Texas high school highlights the potential adverse side affects on school climate and culture, and student college readiness, when improving student task scores takes center stage and becomes the focus of the school’s improvement efforts.

Educators at the school were attempting to establish a college-going culture, encouraging enrollment in AP courses and offering college advisement programs, when the state education agency classified the high school as failing. Teachers were pressured to improve scores within a year. Curricula were geared towards the basic skills of the test, and students were pushed into intervention programs focused on test taking.

In interviews and observations, researchers found that the school’s failing status resulted in students feeling “stigmatized” and “humiliated,” and in higher teacher turnover which denied students the consistent social support they need to become first-generation college students. In other words, the focus on standards and assessment designed to make students more prepared for the rigors of college was creating conditions that were undermining that goal.

Lead researcher Anjale Welton concludes that the study is proof that education reformers need to rethink how they apply stigmatizing penalties to struggling schools, especially those with high-poverty and minority student populations.

This is another lesson that test-centered school turnaround efforts that fail to make the creation of a supportive school climate and culture a central focus are likely to fall short and even create conditions that disconnect both students and staff from the school.

Part of school climate reform movement is shifting the mentality of adults at schools from a deficit model focused on fixing what’s wrong with kids to a strengths-based model focused on what supports adults can provide to ensure all kids succeed and on creating conditions that resilience research has found to mitigate the likelihood that youth will engage in problem behaviors and become disengaged from school.

Similarly, SEAs and LEAs need to avoid deficit approaches to school improvement and focus on what they can do to help schools create positive climates and address the larger socioeconomic challenges they face. This includes providing the school the supports and resources it needs to succeed rather than simply stigmatizing it as failing and holding it accountable for improving test scores. This is especially true for high-minority, high-poverty schools that are under-resourced and challenged by systemic inequities.

The study, “Accountability Strain, College Readiness Drain,” was published in the Winter 2015 issue of The High School Journal.

Linking Crime Prevention and Education: The Bureau of Children’s Justice

Attorney General Harris believes that “being smart on crime begins with investing in children and preventing them from ever becoming involved with the justice system as victims or perpetrators of crime.” The same is true for being smart on education. Crime prevention and education came together at the Stakeholder Convening held in Los Angeles last month by the California Department of Justice to brief the public on its new Bureau of Children’s Justice and obtain stakeholder input.

The Bureau’s stated mission “is to protect the rights of children and focus the attention and resources of law enforcement and policymakers on the importance of safeguarding every child so that they can meet their full potential.” The Bureau’s statewide foci will include foster youth, discrimination and inequity in education, elementary school truancy, human trafficking of vulnerable youth, and childhood trauma and exposure to violence

I was struck at the Convening by how often the stakeholders that worked to address these focal areas and DOJ staff emphasized the importance of fostering more positive, safe, and supportive school climates that avoided punitive approaches to discipline and engaged all youth in learning. School climate improvement was seen as key to prevention, to reducing truancy and dropping out of school, and to providing youth that experience trauma violence, and other risk factors with supports that foster resilience and mitigate the negative effects of these experiences.

This was manna to my ears, reinforcing the message we have been disseminating for twenty years and the California Department of Education made central to the framework of its Safe and Supportive Schools Project.

There is a growing, broad-based consensus that in today’s world schools need to take a more active role in providing youth with the supports they need to thrive beyond doing well on standardized tests. Research confirms that doing this is, in fact, a necessity for schools to improve academic achievement in high poverty, vulnerable communities. But the rationale extends beyond this. We have a societal commitment to our children to provide them the supports they need to succeed in life, and schools are the primary institute outside the family to provide them. Of course, they can’t do it alone. The Attorney General should be commended for her leadership in showing how prevention and education are linked and the importance of all public agencies to work together to ensure youth thrive.

A second common theme at the Convening was the importance of having data to guide this work and better enable stakeholders to identify best prevention practices. Here I was struck about how grateful the state should be to past Attorneys General Van de Kamp, Lungren, and Lockyer for the leadership they showed in funding the California Student Survey beginning in 1985 and teaming with the California Department of Education and other state agencies to foster coordinated, data-driven prevention efforts. Today, as an outgrowth of this work, the California Healthy Kids Survey exists to provide this Bureau of Children’s Justice, and the state’s schools and communities, with the data they need to inform decisions and leadership actions to ensure this mission succeeds.

I am hopeful that the long-term work of the Bureau will transcend Harris’ tenure. For fifteen years I worked closely with the Department of Justice’s Crime and Violence Prevention Center only to see it dismantled in 2008. The mission and approach of the Prevention Center was very similar to that of the new Bureau, if not as focused on the same specific areas. I hope the new Bureau will be sufficiently institutionalized within the Department of Justice that it can lead the hard work necessary to achieve its important goals from administration to administration.

Students with Disability and Bullying Risk

Sarah Guckenburg, Anthony Petrosino & Jacqueline Mundry — WestEd

Bullying continues to receive national attention, sometimes driven by cases in which victims and targets of relentless teasing and harassment commit suicide. It is important for state departments of education, districts, and schools to understand the size and scope of the bullying occurring among their students, and what students may be at particular risk for victimization. A report examines the additional risk there exists for vulnerable students with disabilities.

The project, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences and conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratory for the Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), was undertaken to provide a better understanding of risk levels for certain subgroups of students.[1]

Prior research supports the notion that bullies pick on their peers who are “different,” such as students with disabilities. But most of this research was conducted primarily using surveys of students within a single school or district, or from outside the U.S. In this important contribution to the field, our team analyzed data from the 2009 biennial, statewide Maine Integrated Youth Health High School Survey (MIYHS) of 108 schools (grades 9-12).

An immediate goal of the project was to adequately define what constitutes a student with a disability, as this varies across studies. And this definition had to be one that could be applied to conduct the analyses of the available survey data. For the REL-NEI report, students that had a health, emotional, or behavioral problem, or were limited in activities because of such problems, over a period of six months or longer, were considered to have a disability. Unfortunately, the data did not identify students with learning disabilities alone.

The results from this statewide analysis support the pattern of findings from prior research. The risk of self-reporting that they were the victim of bullying during the academic year was nearly 50% (49.5%) for students with disabilities, compared to nearly 29% of students without disabilities. The risk rate was similar regardless if the student disability was physical or emotional/behavioral in nature. The risk difference between disabled and non-disabled students was similar on or off school grounds. In fact, students with disabilities were almost twice as likely to report that they were the victims of cyber-bullying (31.4%) than students without disability (15.9%).

Our team also examined whether the differences in risk rates between disabled and non-disabled students varied by subgroups. For example, the differences between disabled and non-disabled students varied little by gender or grade level. However, race and sexual orientation “compounded” the risk of bullying victimization for disabled students. Specifically, students of Hispanic ethnicity who were disabled reported higher rates of bullying victimization (e.g., 50% for Hispanics compared to 33% for white students). This was also true of students who self-reported gay, lesbian, bisexual or “unknown” sexual orientation (e.g., 66% of disabled students who self-reported bisexual orientation reported they were bullied versus 33% of disabled students who self-reported heterosexual orientation).

The information learned from analyses such as the one reported on here can help policymakers and practitioners identify the contexts in which bullying is likely to take place. It can also help identify areas in which interventions can be implemented to support the most vulnerable students. For more information about bullying and youth with disabilities and special needs see www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/groups/special-needs/index.html


[1] See Guckenburg, Sarah, Susan Hayes, Anthony Petrosino and Thomas Hanson (2011). Bullying of Disabled and Non-disabled High School Students: A Comparison Using the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. Technical assistance research report: Northeast & Regional Education Laboratory, Northeast and Islands. This study was requested by representatives of the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) and the Maine Departments of Public Health and Education.  See www.maine.gov/doe/bullying/procedures/bullyingdisabledstudents.pdf


School Climate Central to California’s New Quality Schooling Framework

As we begin this new school year, recognition of the importance of creating a positive school climate and culture continues to grow. Just last week this was reflected in CDE’s release of its new online Quality Schooling Framework (QSF). School climate and culture is one of the set of 10 fundamental research-based, interrelated elements that the QSF emphasizes are needed to ensure that all students learn and thrive and are prepared for college and career.

This tool acts like a map, providing timely tools, resources, best practices, and guidelines to help schools and districts make effective plans, policies, and instructional and financial decisions, particularly at the district level for the Local Educational Agency Plan and the Local Control and Accountability Plan. It is also intended as “a conceptual model for gauging and supporting a school’s effectiveness.”

The QSF places a strong emphasis on the importance of school climate and culture, drawing on the framework used in CDE’s Safe and Supportive Schools Project and in developing its California School Climate, Health and Learning Survey System (Cal-SCHLS). The QSF website notes that “the school environment, like family and community environments, has either a powerful positive or negative effect on whether students learn and thrive.” It elaborates: “Physical, environmental, and social aspects of a school have a profound impact on student experiences, attitudes, behaviors, and performance. School culture and climate help determine whether students are motivated to learn and stay in school. In a healthy and positive school culture, all students experience equally supportive learning environments and opportunities that help them learn and thrive.”

Indeed, it can be argued that school climate and culture are the glue that binds all the framework’s elements together and creates the foundation on which to build effective school improvement efforts. Too often it has been the missing piece in school reform, which has tended to focus on governance, curriculum, and instruction, an oversight that helps explain why too often these reforms have fallen short.

Assessment is another of the framework’s ten elements and the Cal-SCHLS system is an invaluable tool for assessing not only school climate and culture but other elements of the QSF and LCAP priorities. Last year, we restructured the secondary Healthy Kids and Staff surveys to enhance their value for providing data to guide school improvement efforts. Secondary schools can also now request a School Climate Report Card based on their Healthy Kids data. This year, we have restructured the elementary Healthy Kids Survey to align it with these changes. For further information, visit the survey websites: chks.wested.org and cscs.wested.org.

Student Civic Engagement and School Climate Improvement: Two (or More) Birds with One Stone

Changing individuals, the relationships among them, and the systems that create opportunities for safe and supportive school experiences are all part of the equation for school climate improvement. One strategy that has promise for addressing all of these levels of intervention at once is student civic engagement.

Student civic engagement refers to activities that allow young people to participate in the civic life of their schools and communities, giving them an opportunity to contribute to a common good larger than themselves. This engagement can encompass a variety of behaviors and activities—from membership in a school committee to participating in a service project to informal helping behavior. Civically engaged young people stand to improve their settings through their efforts, and as a byproduct of their work, they may develop individual skills and positive relationships with other community members.

The value of student civic engagement for positive school climate in urban middle schools is supported by two new research studies published in the journal Applied Developmental Science by my colleagues and myself. One study provides evidence for the link between student civic involvement and individual competencies that contribute to positive school climate. In that study, we found that students who are frequently engaged in civic activities—like student government, leadership in groups or clubs, and helping to improve their schools and neighborhoods—had standardized test scores more than ten percent higher than their peers, attended 15 more days of school per year compared to their peers, and received virtually no discipline referrals compared to more than three per year among peers, after controlling for a host of demographic characteristics (Voight & Torney-Purta, 2013).

Similar individual benefits of civic engagement have been documented in other research (see Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009), with increases in self-esteem, prosocial attitudes, and the sense of social responsibility potentially serving as mediators of achievement, attendance, and classroom behavior.

The link between student civic involvement and academic and behavioral benefits is not particularly remarkable. After all, many interventions in the mold of socioemotional learning have demonstrated effectiveness in increasing student test scores and attendance and in reducing problem behavior. The potentially remarkable quality of civic engagement is its civicness. The emphasis on the common good in civic activities may make them more amenable than interventions focused on fostering individual student competencies to improvements in relationships, norms, and broader practices—to common rather than individual goods.

The second study, led by Joanna Geller, supports this notion. The findings suggest that in classrooms with more students who frequently help improve their schools and neighborhoods, there is a more positive overall perception of climate among students (Geller, Voight, Wegman, & Nation, 2013). That is, even for classroom peers who are not personally involved, they have a more positive perception of student-teacher relationships, student peer relationships, and the consistency and fairness of rules in the presence of more civically engaged classmates. The more involved the students, the more positive the climate.

How might student civic engagement produce positive school climate? The research noted above is correlational, not supportive of directionality or causality. It very well may be the case that students who attend schools with better climates are moved to help improve their schools and neighborhoods. While climate certainly may cause involvement, experience from the California Safe and Supportive Schools (Cal-S3) initiative suggests that the relationship is at least reciprocal, if not reversed.

Through Student Listening Circles (SLCs), students in Cal-S3 schools are participating in a school climate-improvement process that gives them voice in naming issues and solutions related to their school’s climate. Through these SLCs, students have helped set the agenda for their schools’ climate-improvement plans, bringing to light concerns and actions that reflect students’ lived experiences and that otherwise may have been missed without their involvement (for a detailed account, see O’Malley, Voight, & Izu, 2014). A similar approach to youth civic engagement is being employed in the California Endowment’s “Sons and Brothers” initiative, in which young people are conducting research projects to understand how to make schools and neighborhoods healthier and more equitable for boys and young men of color and using the results from their research to advocate for change.

When young people get involved in improving their schools and neighborhoods, good things happen. Their work often results in changes in the systems they seek to improve. And in the process, they develop positive relationships with their collaborators and community members, and they pick up prosocial skills and attitudes. Amidst the myriad strategies for school climate-improvement, student civic engagement stands out for its potential to simultaneously address multiple levels of intervention—two (or more) birds with one stone.


Geller, J., Voight, A., Wegman, H., & Nation, M. (2013). How do varying types of youth civic engagement predict perceptions of school climate? Applied Developmental Science, 17(3), 135-147.

O’Malley, M., Voight, A., & Izu, J. A. (2014). Engaging students in school climate improvement: A student voice strategy. In M. J. Furlong, R. Gilman & E. S. Huebner (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology in the schools (2nd ed., pp. 329-346). New York: Routledge.

Voight, A., & Torney-Purta, J. (2013). A typology of youth civic engagement in urban middle schools. Applied Developmental Science, 17(4), 198-212.

Engagement: The Key to Academic Success

A new report from the Gallop Organization, State of America’s Schools, compiles evidence supporting the emphasis of the California Safe and Supportive Schools Project on fostering developmentally supportive schools that are focused on student and staff engagement and building social-emotional competencies.  The data indicate that almost half of students are not engaged in school.


In response to engagement-related questions about friendships, a feeling of safety, and praise for good work, researchers classified 55 percent of students as “engaged,” 28 percent as “not engaged,” and 17 percent as “actively disengaged.”  Emotional engagement at school is the noncognitive factor that most directly correlates with academic achievement, the report says.


In a 2009 Gallup study of 78,106 students in 80 schools across eight states, researchers found that a 1-percentage-point increase in a student’s score on the engagement index was associated with a 6-point increase in reading achievement and an 8-point increase in math achievement scores.


In a finding described by the organization as highly significant, students surveyed in 2013 who said they strongly agreed with two statements—“My school is committed to building the strengths of each student,” and “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future”—were 30 times more likely to be classified as “engaged” —a key predictor of academic success — than students who strongly disagreed with those statements on the 1-to-5 scale.


The report emphasizes that school leaders should not neglect the social and emotional factors that help students thrive.  They are powerful drivers of achievement. 


It also recommends a number of strategies to build engagement that Cal-S3 schools have been implementing, including encouraging students to discover and apply their strengths and addressing teacher engagement to help students succeed.


Although teachers’ engagement levels at work are similar to those of the general workforce, teachers were the least likely among occupations to say that their opinions counted at work. To build engagement among teachers, the report recommends that principals ask them questions about curriculum, pedagogy, and scheduling, and incorporate their feedback into decision-making. School leaders should also pair engaged administrators and teachers to collaborate and generate enthusiasm for student-centered projects, the report says.


The report warns that a broad focus on testing and new standards can lead schools to neglect the individualized needs of students and that “unless U.S. schools can better align learning strategies and objectives with [these often overlooked] fundamental aspects of human nature, they will always struggle to help students achieve their full potential.”

A Model for LCAP: California’s Safe and Supportive Schools

 For California districts struggling to engage in an effective process for developing their LCAP, there are 58 California high schools that can serve as models:  the Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) grantees.  In many respects, the goals of the S3 project align with the priorities of LCAP:  engaging stakeholders in a process of using data to guide development of action plans to improve learning conditions, engagement, and performance.

 Selected by the California Department of Education to receive these grants because of the poor school climates, S3 high schools have worked over the past two years to build their capacity to implement this action-planning process developed by WestEd, called School Climate by Design.  The process begins with a thorough needs assessment using data from the California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (Cal-SCHLS) and other sources, including a Student Listening Circle to incorporate student voice,  to identify their school’s strengths and needs.  Stakeholder school climate teams (including teachers, administrators, students, and parents) then develop specific action plans to address the identified needs, incorporating evidence-based practices, programs, and strategies that meet their goals and objectives.

 This School Climate by Design process is a model for how to develop an effective LCAP, particularly as the content of the Cal-SCHLS surveys and the goals of S3 align so well with the state priorities required to be addressed by the LCAP. It is also a means to help identify local priorities that should be addressed.

 Even more important, S3 administrators and coordinators have the knowledge districts need about what works to improve school climate; foster student, staff, and parent engagement; support their high-need students; and promote the acquisition of social-emotional competencies that students need to succeed in school, including meeting the Common Core State Standards—all priorities of LCAP.

 The model is bearing fruit. After two years of program implementation, the majority of S3 schools have improved not only their climate, as measured by a School Climate Index (SCI), but also student academic achievement, as measured by the state’s Academic Performance Index (API). The average SCI increased 12% (30 points), from 254 to 284, rising from the 10th to the 49th percentile. The average API increased 15 points.  To learn more about these improvements and why they occurred, read these Success Stories.

 Now is the time for S3 grantees to get involved in their district’s LCAP planning process, so it can be informed by their expertise.  Other districts can identify a neighboring S3 school from the Cal-S3 website (CaliforniaS3.wested.org).  The website also contains resources to help in LCAP planning and development, including a guidebook on using Cal-SCHLS data to improve school climate and a series of What Works Briefs that align with the major domains of school climate and LCAP priorities.  For more information about the School Climate by Design process, email schoolclimate@wested.org.


School Climate and Substance Use Prevention: Will LCAP Help Reduce Student Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use?

A series of research studies confirms that student substance use is intimately related to school climate. This suggests that the new requirement that every school district in California adopt a Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) that includes school climate improvement as a priority, has the potential to reduce adolescent substance use. This is one of those rare opportunities when multiple benefits to learning, health, and well-being may result, warranting a closer look at the implications of this research for LCAP development as well as substance use prevention.

Experimental research shows that an improved school social environment—including student participation in school, relationships, and a positive school ethos—predicts reductions in student substance use, according to Adam Fletcher and colleagues (2008).  They also found that school-level and individual-level observational studies consistently reported that disengagement and poor teacher–student relationships were associated with drug use and other risky health behaviors.  (A reading list of this research is provided below).

In recent studies, Sharon Sznitman and colleagues (2012) found that both male and female students in schools with positive climates reported lower levels of substance use.  In a second study by Sznitman and Daniel Romer (2014), perceived positive school climate (as measured by level of respect, clarity of rules, and problem management) was associated with a reduction in cigarette and marijuana initiation and a reduction in the frequency of cigarette use among high school students at 1-year follow-up.  In contrast, student drug testing was not associated with any changes in substance use and was deemed a less promising prevention strategy than school climate. In fact, the results showed that the only case where drug testing did have a negative association with student drug use was in schools with a positive school climate (and then only for female students), raising the possibility that the success of drug testing is contingent on positive school climate.

Consistent with these findings, Maria LaRusso and colleagues (2008) reported that adolescents who had higher teacher support and regard for student perspectives in their high schools were more likely to see their schools as having respectful climates and healthy norms of drug use, which was associated with lower levels of personal drug use. Students in such schools also reported greater social belonging and fewer symptoms of depression.

Among a sample of Northern Ireland youth, school-climate factors assessed at age 13 or 14 were related to less normative substance use at age 15 or 16 among a sample of Northern Ireland youth.  Positive teacher-student relationships and lower levels of fighting at school reduced the risk of daily smoking, weekly drunkenness, and weekly marijuana use. School disengagement increased the likelihood of cigarette and marijuana use among females (Perra et al., 2012).

There may be limits to the influence of school climate on substance use depending on the type and level of use and the age of the user.  Sznitman and Romer found that a positive school climate was not significantly associated with reductions in the initiation of alcohol use or with the frequency of alcohol or marijuana use, as measured by the number of days consumed in the past 30 days.  The authors speculate that perceived positive school climate may have weaker prevention effects with behavior that is viewed as normative in this age group, as prevalence surveys indicate is the case today with alcohol among high school students. Yet Perra and colleagues found positive associations for weekly drunkenness and marijuana use.  The difference in these findings may reflect that high school students consider regular but moderate drinking more normative than drunkenness.

The lack of a significant association between school climate and frequency of both marijuana or alcohol use in the Sznitman study does indicate that additional programs may be needed to target youth who are heavy users.  This is consistent with WestEd’s school climate model calling for implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports that include not only developmental supports and protective-factor strategies for all students but intervention programs such as student assistance and referral to treatment targeting students that fall through the cracks.

Even with these uncertainties, this research supports that school climate may have far reaching positive effects on the health as well as academic performance of youth. The potential adverse consequences of poor school climates, in turn, warrant more attention. School climate alone is not sufficient as a prevention strategy, but minimally it holds promise as an effective complement to other drug prevention efforts. A topic warranting further research is whether the positive effect of school climate on substance use may be greater in middle school, when even substance use is less normative than in high schools.

How does school climate influence young people’s drug use?  According to social control theory, as Sznitman and Romer observe, students who are attached to schools refrain from substance use (and other risk behaviors) because they internalize the prosocial expectations and norms encouraged by schools (Catalano et al., 2004; Hirschi, 1969; Libbey, 2004).  Fostering a positive school climate has protective-factor value as a drug prevention strategy (Blum & Libbey, 2004; Flay et al., 2004; Hawkins et al., 2001; Henry & Slater, 2007; Libbey, 2004; Resnick et al. 1997; Simons-Morton et al. 1999).  Research further underscores that feelings of attachment, school connectedness, and learning engagement are related to school climates that foster positive, respectful relationships between and among staff and students, a sense of physical and emotional safety, and provide supports that meet the needs of the whole child—developmental, social emotional, health, and academic.

Including school climate and pupil engagement in school accountability systems, as with the LCAP, may reduce student substance use—at least in regard to marijuana, cigarettes, and drunkenness—if districts make implementation of these positive conditions and student supports central to their LCAP goals. The strategies being implemented by California’s Safe and Supportive Schools grantees provide a roadmap for all districts to model in their LCAP development.

Anecdotal evidence indicates a pronounced retention in school prevention efforts in recent years.  The ending of federal Title IV (Safe and Drug Free Schools and Community Program), coupled with the pressure on schools to improve test scores and reduce spending, have left many California schools without strong support for their prevention efforts.

The good news is that the research reviewed here holds out the promise that an effective LCAP that makes improving school climate and pupil engagement central goals will help address this program gap. Prevention stakeholders need to become actively involved in LCAP development efforts in their school districts to ensure that this occurs. In the past, too little attention has been paid to school climate as a prevention strategy.


Blum, R. W., & Libbey, H. P. (2004). Executive summary: School Connectedness – Strengthening Health and Education Outcomes for Teenagers. Journal of School Health, 74, 231–232.

Booth, J. A., Farrell, A., & Varano, S. P. (2008). Social control, serious delinquency, and risky behavior: A gendered analysis. Crime & Delinquency, 54, 423–456.

Catalano, R. F., Haggerty, K. P., Oesterle, S., Fleming, C. B., & Hawkins,J. D. (2004). The importance of bonding to school for healthy development: Findings from the Social Development Research Group. Journal of School Health, 74, 252–261.

Flay, B. R., Graumlich, S., Segawa, E., Burns, J. L., & Holliday, M. Y. (2004). Effects of 2 prevention programs on high-risk behaviors among African American youth: A randomized trial. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 158, 377–384.

Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., & Hargreaves, J. (2008). School effects on young people’s drug use: A systematic review of intervention and observational studies. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 209–220.

Hawkins, J. D., Guo, J., Hill, K. G., Battin-Pearson, S., & Abbott, R. D. (2001). Long-term effects of the Seattle Social Development intervention on school bonding trajectories. Applied Developmental Science, 5, 225–236.

Henry, K. L., & Slater, M. D. (2007). The contextual effect of school attachment on young adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of School Health, 77, 67–74.

Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

LaRusso, M. D., Romer, D., & Selman, R. L. (2008). Teachers as builders of respectful school climates: Implications for adolescent drug use norms and depressive symptoms in high school. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 386–398.

Libbey, H. P. (2004). Measuring student relationships to school: Attachment, bonding, connectedness, and engagement. Journal of School Health, 74, 274–283.

Perra, O., Fletcher, A., Bonell, C., Higgins, K., & McCrystal, P. (2012). School-related predictors of smoking, drinking and drug use: Evidence from the Belfast Youth Development Study. Journal of Adolescence, 35, 315–324.

Resnick, M. D., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823–832.

Samdal, O., Wold, B., Klepf, K. I., & Kannas, L. (2000). Students’ perception of school and their smoking and alcohol use: A cross-national study. Addiction Research & Theory, 8, 141–167.

Simons-Morton, B. G., Crump, A. D., Haynie, D. L., & Saylor, K. E. (1999). Student-school bonding and adolescent problem behavior. Health Education Research, 14, 99–107.

Sznitman, S. R., Dunlop, S. M., Nalkur, P., Khurana, A., & Romer, D. (2012). Student drug testing in the context of positive and negative school climates: Results from a national survey. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 146–155.

Sznitman, S. R., Kolobov, T., Bogt, T. T., Kuntsche, E., Walsh, S. D., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Harel-Fisch, Y. (2013). Exploring substance use normalization among adolescents: A multilevel study in 35 countries. Social Science & Medicine, 97, 143–151.

Sznitman, S. R. & Romer, D. (2014). Student drug testing and positive school climates: Testing the relation between two school characteristics and drug use behavior in a longitudinal study. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 75, 65-73.

Hearts and Hands

This blog post is being published simultaneously on the CTE Central Blog. Co-authored by Tom Ross.

When states reduce funding for CTE—like here in California—Career Technical Education people are bewildered. In light of all the attention given to career and continuing education—as well as the need for skilled workers—this would seem to be the last place to cut funds.

The school climate people are concerned as well.

Knowledge and skills aren’t learned in a vacuum. As students focus on their own interests and aptitudes—through career technical education—they are developing the non-cognitive skills, the mindsets (or mindfulness), and dispositions (see slide 3 here as well) that will make them both college and career ready. In the SCANS Report (2000) employers identified the non-cognitive skills that they find to be foundational to their needs; these include responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self-management, integrity, and honesty.  These are skills that may be learned in school but not explicitly taught. They come from that intangible thing called school climate.

School climate refers to the quality and character of school life, based on patterns of people’s experiences of school life, and reflects the norms, goals, values, interpersonal relationships, teaching, learning and leadership practices, and organizational structures of a school. Schools with good climate provide healthy, positive learning environments where students feel safe and respected and can grow and reach for goals they feel are meaningful to them and relevant in the real world. Ideally, schools provide students a safe space in which to learn, make mistakes, try new things, and develop both their knowledge and skills with the support of grownups who care about them.

Children often enter school feeling insecure, nervous, alone, and unsure of what to expect and what’s expected of them. Interventions and strategies that support positive school climate can make their experiences a lot less stressful.

What’s this got to do with career technical education? Well, it turns out that CTE is a powerful school climate tool – providing students a strong connection to their schools, creating relevance for their educations, and allowing educators opportunities to see their students in a whole new light. We often see CTE, academics, and school climate as disparate things, inhabiting different worlds of thought, in separate silos. In a healthy and positive learning environment (school climate), CTE and academics work together.

 Link Crew (in yellow) at El Capitan High School, Lakeside, CA

Career Technical Education prepares students for the real world of work and careers by teaching them workplace competencies and making academic content accessible to students in a hands-on context.

In order for students to want to go to and stay in school—and keep them from dropping out—there has to be something in it for them. It needs to engage them.  They need to want to learn and to come to school (attendance is a major indicator in school climate evaluations).

Nothing is more engaging for students of all ages than a lesson that puts something new in their hands and shows them how to use it, a skill that is useful and that helps them create something or solve a problem or provides training they can build on. And it should be something they enjoy doing and that they find to be relevant in the world.

And nothing is more engaging for teachers than students who are learning and growing; students who take the lead and apply what they have learned to new situations and problems. When students become leaders, they are engaged.


 Camp LEAD at Grossmont Union High School District

Leadership programs—often part of a character education program—are a major part of school climate. Mt. Miguel and El Capitan High Schools (in the Grossmont Union High School District in San Diego County), for example, offer programs like Camp Lead and Listening Circles as well as Link Crew. These leadership activities promote meaningful, rigorous learning, personal and social growth, and civic responsibility as well as career development. (The School Climate Index for both schools has improved annually since 2011.)

Which came first, school climate or student engagement? It doesn’t matter, as long as they are connected.

Student engagement occurs when “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success [grades], but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.”

“Along with mastery and application of essential content as typically prescribed and monitored in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems, it is necessary that students cultivate higher-order cognitive and meta-cognitive skills that allow them to engage in meaningful interaction with the world around them.” (From Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions, CCSSO, 2012)

“For children to learn to their full potential, and for us to make inroads in reducing dropout rates, students need to feel safe at, supported by, and connected to their schools. School climate is very much connected to student success.” Tom Torlakson, California Superintendent of Public Instruction (from CA Safe and Supportive Schools).

Heads, hearts and hands. Engaged students use their heads. Students who are not engaged “sit on their hands.” We engage them with “hands-on” activities. Engaged students “put their heart” into their work.

College of the Canyons’ Summer Institute (Photo courtesy of the Santa Clarita Valley Signal)

 Are your students engaged? Are they putting their hearts as well as their hands into their work? Let us know how you are integrating CTE and school climate in your school.