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.



S3 Symposium 2013

The week before Thanksgiving is a busy time for many, as it heralds the start of the holiday season, and preparations for Thanksgiving gatherings are well under way. In Sacramento, however, the nearly 300 school and district staff, and school community stakeholders involved in California’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) program were busy for a very different reason – they were attending and participating in the 2013 S3 Symposium.

The first S3 Symposium took place in 2012 in Southern California, so the northern part of the state got to play host this time around. Representatives from all 58 S3 schools traveled to the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento for the event, that focused on idea-sharing and planning for sustainability. Here are some of the highlights:

Grantees participated in a poster session, featuring success stories from their schools’ programs.

Symposium attendees viewing posters from S3 school sites.


The posters were mounted for display at the evening welcome reception, and stayed up for the remainder of the Symposium, in order to allow participants plenty of time to peruse them for information and ideas.

S3 Grantee Posters from the 2013 Symposium.


In the plenary sessions, participants were treated to a range of activities, from energizing keynote speakers such as William Preble…

William Preble delivers the keynote address on the first full day of the Symposium.


…to an inspiring and engaging student panel from a local S3 school.

The student panel gets introduced by a moderator.


Several “master classes” (2.5 hour long sessions) were offered providing in-depth topic discussions and skills development…

Alison Adler leads a Master Class entitled “Moving all Staff Toward a Single School Culture.”


…along with over a dozen 75 minute workshops on school climate-related topics.

Participants engage in a discussion during a workshop.


Grantees were offered further opportunities to share their experiences, ideas, and questions in Ignite Talks and “Job-a-like” discussion sessions.

Participant shares out information from a Job-A-Like discussion with the full group.


WestEd, Duerr Evaluation, Center for Applied Research Solutions (CARS), and California Department of Education staff were on hand through it all, coordinating, organizing, and facilitating the Symposium from start to end.

Symposium staff meet to review the following day’s assignments.


Overall, those in attendance agreed that the event was a huge success.

Resources such as slides from presentations, photographs of posters, and other program materials will be made available shortly on the California S3 website.

Many thanks to all those who helped make this event such a great one, including our speakers, presenters, attendees, and event organizers.

Restorative Justice in Oakland Unified School District

This week, we have another guest post, submitted by David Yusem and Yari Ojeda Sandel who work on Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program. Read on to learn more about the powerful impact of this program in Oakland schools and on students.

At Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), we are implementing whole school Restorative Justice (RJ) at many of our schools to build community, repair harm, and provide personalized support for a student re-entering a school after a prolonged absence. Restorative Justice is a program that focuses on building and strengthening relationships. As such, RJ frames wrong-doing or crime as a violation of relationships and seeks to repair any damage that may have been inflicted on relationships by those types of actions.

One recent story stands out as an illustrative example of the power of RJ in transforming conflict.

Two girls, once friends, got into a fight at one of our middle schools. It was violent, and took place in front of several members of the school including the Assistant Principal. The two girls were suspended. The school community grappled with rumors circulating about the circle of friends around the two girls. The situation worsened to the point that there were six girls who wanted to fight each other – all who used to be friends.

The Power of Circles

The RJ Coordinator on site brought the six girls into a circle to temper the fear and anger boiling up amongst them so that they could make it to Friday, when the two girls were to return from suspension. Drawn from the practices of native cultures, circles are inclusive spaces that create opportunities for participants to build community, have equitable dialogue, respond to harm or conflict, hold offenders accountable by allowing them to understand the impact of their actions on others, and repair the damage of that harm to the extent possible. Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking as they pass around a “talking piece” (a designated object) that allows them to share. Every circle begins with an “opening,” in which the facilitator or leader shares a reading such as a poem or a quote that signals the creation of a separate space from the rest of the day. The opening is followed by the development of shared guidelines and norms and the identification of shared values. After the circle dialogue takes place, there is a “closing” and participants consciously leave the circle and return to their previous environment.

Throughout the week, the rumors continued and other students started to become involved. The girls sought support from teachers to help them manage their anger. The community was tense; the girls were distracted from academics and afraid. Tension continued to build until the two suspended students arrived back on campus. Three of the other girls came to school in sweats that day, ready to fight. The other three girls were afraid to go anywhere on the campus. In partnership with two teachers, the RJ Coordinator provided safe spaces for the groups to remain apart while she met with the two central girls, working individually with each first, then together.

Accountability and Healing

Due to her efforts, the girls were able to understand the impact of their actions, not just on themselves, but upon their friends, the Assistant Principal, and the school community. They created a plan to repair the harm they caused. They wanted to plan a circle to bring their friends together to discuss the incident. They designed the questions that would be asked and met with their friends separately to discuss the process. Ultimately all the girls affected, including the suspended students, participated in a circle to repair the harm among their friends. By the end, they all felt closer and could laugh again. Together, they planned and facilitated another larger circle to create a feeling a safety on campus again. A teacher involved in this process wrote the following to the RJ Coordinator:

“The girls did an INCREDIBLE job today running the follow up circle. I was so impressed, not only with the maturity and honesty of the girls, but with the process itself. After today, I am even more of a believer in RJ. Thank you so much for empowering our students to take accountability for their actions and value the importance of honesty and integrity.”

The Numbers

While an evaluation of the OUSD RJ program is ongoing, discipline data from OUSD schools seem to indicate that RJ is having an impact on schools and improving school climates:

Ralph J. Bunche Continuation School reduced its overall suspension rate from 12% in 2011 to 8% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 19% in 2011 to just 7% in 2012.  Bunche eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (8% overall, 7% African American males), and cut its overall suspension rate by more than half.

McClymonds High School reduced its overall suspension rate from 25% in 2011 to 15% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 34% in 2011 to just 17% in 2012. McClymonds eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (15% overall, 17% African American males), and cut its African American male suspension rate by half.

West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate from 49% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 68% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012. West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate by more than two-thirds, and reduced its African American male suspension rate by almost as much.

For more information, take a look at the Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice program’s website or contact David Yusem, Program Manager, at david.yusem@ousd.k12.ca.us.

Madera High School, the S3 Grant, and Peer Counseling

This week, we have a guest post written by Jennifer Gaviola of Madera High School, a Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) grantee in Madera, CA, about their Peer Counseling Program. Research has shown that peer helping programs (either peer-led or peer-assisted) can have beneficial outcomes for participating students, whether they are delivering services or receiving them. These programs have been found to have a positive impact on students’ connectedness to school and peers, feelings of competency and self-efficacy, grades and academic achievement, and prosocial attitudes and behaviors (for more on the research, look here, here, and here).

That being said, it’s always helpful to get the perspective of those who are actually implementing the programs and doing the work. Here’s Madera High’s story:

A few short years ago we had a wish list of amazing ideas to make Madera High an even better place for all students. Our California Healthy Kids Survey data indicated that we had students who felt that they didn’t have anyone to turn to at school, that they needed help with problem solving, and that they wanted to feel like someone at school cared about them.

In response, our wish list was full of ideas and programs to foster the social and emotional connection of students to the school, an absolutely essential piece to the puzzle we call high school: peer counseling, Link Crew, positive culture and climate, and Olweus for bullying prevention. Unfortunately with the state of the educational budget in California, adding such programs seemed like something for a fairy tale. Even though research tells us that a positive, safe environment where all kids feel connected and successful directly impacts test scores and academic achievement, how would we ever get our wishes granted when every budget seemed so pinched?

Grant(ed) was the key. The Safe and Supportive School Grant was the first star, the fairy god-grant we were waiting for. Madera High School received this grant during the 2011-12 school year and since then we have been able to implement all of our “wish list” ideas.

One of the first programs we established through our grant was Peer Counseling.  We utilize Ira Sachnoff’s Peer Mediation and Conflict Resolution Training. This past August, we created a class, found a fantastic teacher who relates to students and has an extraordinary desire to impact their lives, and then we got to work.

The first semester was spent training students in the following areas: paraphrasing, values, decision making, active listening, non-verbal communication, and much more. By second semester, our 24 students were well-equipped to begin their quest to help students help themselves. With the help of these young leaders of tomorrow, we have begun a huge cultural shift at our school that empowers students to solve problems. They are helping us achieve our goals that all students feel connected to school and never feel they are alone. Our peer counselors are leaders dedicated to our mission of making a difference in the lives of all students at Madera High School. They are just one of our many S3 shining stars changing the school culture, one student at a time.

Depression a link between school climate and student learning?

By Greg Austin

About three in ten secondary students in California experience chronic, incapacitating sadness and hopelessness (CHKS data).  A recent study indicates that a school’s social and educational environment is linked to students’ symptoms of depression.  This raises issues about a school’s responsibility for contributing to student well-being and also has implications for understanding how school climate, student mental health, and academic achievement may be related.

The researchers, led by Frédéric Brière, tracked 5,262 teenagers in 71 high schools throughout Quebec, Canada, from 7th grade through 11th grade.   They used student surveys to measure school climate based on four broad categories: fairness and rules, social climate (quality of relationships), safety (security and violence) and learning opportunities (e.g., teacher practice, extracurricular involvement, student decision-making opportunities, academic support).

The researchers found that students in schools with positive school climates in 8th grade had lower depressive symptoms in 10th and 11th grades (the effect was slightly stronger for girls). They also found that individual students who had more positive perceptions of their school climate in 8th grades had lower depressive symptoms in 10th and 11th grades. Both school-level measures of climate and individual perceptions mattered. Other school characteristics considered in the study—like school size or average income levels—did not significantly predict depressive symptoms.

Prior research with adolescents has shown that experiencing symptoms of depression is associated with poor academic outcomes (e.g., Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2000). The Brière research would suggest that one way in which positive school climate may contribute to better student achievement and attendance is by improving their mental health.

Consistent with the findings from Brière, a recent CHKS factsheet showed that students who reported being sad or hopeless were less likely to report having high levels of developmental supports (caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) in their school.  They were also less likely to have high levels of school connectedness. Finally, these students were at elevated risk of educational, health, social, and emotional problems compared to other students, including lower school attendance, performance, and connectedness.

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that schools have a significant role in students’ mental health. In schools that provide fewer developmental supports, students experience more depressive symptoms. By improving school climate, educators may improve the mental health of their students, which in turn can improve attendance and academic performance.

That such a substantial proportion of California’s secondary students are at risk of depression clearly warrants more attention to the relationship between school climate, student mental health, and academic performance.


See:  Brière, F., et al. (2013.) School environment and adolescent depressive symptoms: A multilevel longitudinal Study. Pediatrics, February 11.

Juvonen, J., Nishina, A., & Graham, S. (2000). Peer harassment, Psychological adjustment, and school functioning in early adolescents. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(2), 349-359.

Bullying Prevention: Addressing the “Culture of Silence”

By Anthony Petrosino and Sarah Guckenburg

Many children who are bullied never report it. This “culture of silence” undermines our knowledge of the bullying problem and the school climate.

In 2009, in Florida, a 13-year-old middle school student was sexually assaulted by four teenage boys in the locker room. According to prosecutors, who have charged the four boys with rape, the victim suffered a two month “reign of terror” as he was repeatedly bullied before the sexual attack. School officials stated that neither the victim nor the witnesses to this repeated bullying told anyone at the school about it.

Although such horrendous cases of bullying are thankfully rare, the non-reporting of bullying is not. In a 2010 report of a national survey of students in 6th-12th grades, we confirmed that a large percentage of bullying goes unreported: approximately 64% of all students who were victimized by bullying consistently responded on the survey that the incidents they experienced were never reported to a teacher or other adult at the school. Reporting did increase when an injury occurred or when its frequency increased, but 40% of the injured bullying victims still said no report was made, and 50% of students who were harassed daily or nearly every day.[1]

Teachers and other school staff need to be trained to spot bullying and be given the tools necessary to intervene and stop it.  But the truth is that much of these incidents happen outside the sight and sound of caring adults. Some research indicates that only 4% of bullying is witnessed by an adult. Even with good supervision, bullying will happen in places where adults are not going to be privy to it, such as the bathroom, the locker room, during transition periods between classes, in the lunchroom, during recess, on the way home, and now, even more pervasively, on social media such as Facebook or via texting or email. Many bullying incidents are witnessed by other youths. Unfortunately, both victims and bystanders are often reluctant to report bullying.

This under-reporting affects the educational community’s awareness of the full extent of the bullying problem in their school. It also means that some students, such as the middle school student in Florida, will continue to “suffer in silence” without any possibility of a caring adult at the school intervening to stop it.

Why don’t students report bullying? Empirical data to answer this question has been pretty elusive, but state survey data from Rhode Island, shows that substantial numbers of middle and high school youth do not report because they are afraid that the bullying will get worse or that the other students will call them a “snitch.” More surprising, even greater percentages of student bullying victims responded that they did not report their bullying because they believed it wouldn’t help their situation or they did not believe that it would be taken seriously.  And approximately one-third of secondary students indicated that they didn’t even know to whom to even make a report.

Can schools make a difference in reporting? Overcoming this culture of silence is no easy task. In a 2004 study of middle schools in Roanoke, however, University of Virginia researchers John Unnever and Dewey Cornell found that student victims were more likely to report their bullying if they perceived that their schools were intolerant of bullying. Several anti-bullying programs are focused on creating a climate that not only signals intolerance of bullying but also empowers both victims and bystanders to report bullying incidents to school staff.

Research studies on bullying need to further unpack the barriers to reporting and, thereby, help spawn new programs, practices, and policies that could be tried and tested in schools. If effective, such strategies could help counter the culture of school peers that rewards silence by victims who have been harmed and bystanders who witness it.

[1] The authors conducted their research on bullying for the Regional Education Laboratory, Northeast and Islands, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education, and led by the Education Development Center in Waltham, MA.

Vista High School Character Leaders Program, Part 2

A couple days ago, we started telling you about Vista High School’s Character Leaders Program – what it does and what its outcomes seem to be on the students who are participating. There are specific things that seemed to aid the program’s success at the school. Here’s the breakdown:

Factors for Success

This program was originally implemented at two high schools, but only survives— and thrives—at one, even though both high schools began with the same resources and opportunities. What made the difference?

Four major factors emerge:

  • A Passionate Faculty Leader. David Hanlon, the teacher and “Character Leaders Facilitator” for the original grant, is the heart of the program. Not only does he lead and inspire his students, he actively reaches out to the rest of the school’s faculty and staff on campus to engage, include, and empower them to incorporate Character Ed into their instruction as well as participate in schoowide activities. Hanlon is a true “Idea Champion” on his campus.

Vista High Character Leaders at Brengle Terrace Park for a community clean-up event.

  • Supportive Administration. Administration staff at Vista High were impressed by and supportive of Hanlon and his work—so much so that after the grant ended, administration decided to use discretionary funds to fund at least one period of Hanlon’s instructional time so that he could continue to offer the CL course to students.

    In addition, one of the school’s Assistant Principals, Eric Chagala, actively partners with Hanlon to seek out and apply for small education grants to cover the cost of extra programmatic components such as Breaking Down the Walls, Safe School Ambassadors, and supplies and books.
  • Flexibility. One of the major obstacles to student enrollment in the CL course emerged early in the life of the program, and that was the scheduling conflicts with other courses. The answer was to allow an independent study version of the class, though this option was contingent on two things— the willingness of the teacher to take on the extra work that can come with independent study situations as well as an opportunity to meet regularly with independent study students. Which leads us to the final factor:
  • A Bell Schedule with an Advisory Period. Not only was Hanlon a teacher who was determined to make the CL course work, he had the advantage of an advisory period in the school’s bell schedule. Twice a week, for 30 minutes at a time, the school’s bell schedule includes an “Extended Learning Period (ELP),” which allows students to receive extra instructional support from teachers, attend club meetings, or in the case of the Character Leaders course, participate in the independent study version of the class.

    Approximately 80% of enrolled students participate via the independent study option, and are required to meet with Hanlon for 30 minutes twice a week during both ELPs to earn course credit.

For more information on this program, contact David Hanlon at davidhanlon@vusd.k12.ca.us. You can also see the types of activities students participate in on the program’s Facebook page and check out Hanlon’s class webpage where he stores class documents and makes announcements to students.


Vista High School Character Leaders Program

Character Education programs that specifically target high schools are generally few and far between.

A notable exception is the Vista High School Character Leaders Program, which began with Character Education project funding from the U.S. Department of Education in 2006. However, its continued success and growth have everything to do with the California school’s flexibility, creativity, and, ultimately, commitment to making the program work.

Vista High Character Leaders at a 9/11 Day of Service and Remembrance Activity

With over 220 students enrolled in Vista’s Character Leaders (CL) elective course (the program started with just 65 the first year), many of them returning for up to a consecutive three years, Vista High School’s program is thriving and now an established part of the school’s culture.  The course’s syllabus includes Service-Learning Projects, and an impressive required reading list with related writing assignments, covering both fiction and non-fiction titles.

Supported By Data

Year after year, more and more students enroll in CL. And enthusiasm for the program only seems to grow. Stakeholders believe that the program, along with other efforts the school has been making, has made a real impact on the school’s overall climate.

Discipline numbers have improved dramatically, dropping from a baseline 13.1% suspension rate (n=396) in 2006-07 down to 7.3% (n=194) in 2010-11. API scores have seen an increase from 705 in 2006-07 to 750 in 2011-12.

While the above improvements are not causally linked to CL, it can be surmised that the program may have impacted students’ attitudes toward school and supported a positive learning environment.

Vista High Character Leaders volunteering at the Anstine Audubon Nature Preserve

Even more compelling are California Healthy Kids Survey data of VHS students enrolled in the CL course (Targeted) compared to VHS students not enrolled in the CL course (Universal), in key scales such as “Opportunities for Meaningful Participation “ and “School Connectedness.”

In spring of 2010, 62% of Targeted students reported high levels of “School Connectedness” versus 40% of Universal students. Even more impressive are the 51% of Targeted students reporting high levels of “Opportunities for Meaningful Participation” versus 14% of Universal students.

Factors for Success

This program was originally implemented at two high schools, but only survives— and thrives—at one, even though both high schools began with the same resources and opportunities. What made the difference? We’ll tell you in tomorrow’s blog post! (Read Part 2 here.)

Welcome to the School Climate Connection Blog!

Welcome to the School Climate Connection Blog, a companion to our new e-newsletter. We’re excited to introduce you to this new platform for the discussion of all things school climate — what’s happening in our schools, in research, on the public policy front, and in the news.

This blog serves as an in-depth information resource for educators, policymakers, families, communities, and, let’s not forget, students.  We also hope to stimulate a robust discussion among our readers about what we know, especially around what works, what might work, and what we imagine should be possible when it comes to school climate and reform.

Keep tuned in as we will be devoting special attention to the evidence linking school climate to student success, as well as to what strategies work best, focusing particularly on California schools.