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.

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.

Student Voice, School Climate, and the Local Control Funding Formula

In school after school participating in the Safe and Supportive School Projects in California, Louisiana, and South Carolina, we at WestEd have been facilitators and witnesses to the power that student voice brings to improving school climate and academic achievement. Listening to what students have to say can make a huge difference in the success of school improvement efforts. In a Commentary in EdSource, 11th-grade Oakland High School student Cindy Andrade emphasizes the importance of incorporating student voice as the State Board develops the regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the need to include student engagement and school climate in the priorities required by the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Local school boards should also be listening to what their students, staff, and parents have to say about their schools through their Cal-SCHLS data and should directly involve them in developing an LCAP that effectively addresses local needs.

Here’s what Andrade writes about why this is important and what students want. She begins with a depressing summary of conditions in Oakland schools: overcrowding, outdated computers, damaged textbooks, and insufficient resources, AP classes, counselors, and college prep support to help students be successful.  “In other words,” she asks, “how can you expect us to succeed when we’re being set up to fail?”  She then stresses the importance of asking students themselves how LCFF money should be spent and calls for regulations that prioritize equity, meeting the needs of high-need students, and accountability – not only for achievement but for student engagement, school climate, and other LCAP priorities.

“Without real student and community input into how funding is distributed and spent, we will not be able to hold our districts and schools accountable to us. School districts across California must remember that they are working for us, the students, and that equity must be defined by what we need. After all, their local spending decisions affect our futures…. My peers and I want regulations that require school districts to spend more on the highest-need students; provide more services than they are already providing for these students, and show how this investment is working through increases in achievement and in all the other state priorities, including parent and student engagement and improving school climate. This should be the only option!”

School Climate and the Truancy Crisis

A report from the California Attorney General on the “crisis” of elementary school truancy and absenteeism highlights an important problem that has long-term negative effects in increasing the likelihood of student academic failure and dropping out of school, and that annually costs schools $1.5 billion in funding tied to attendance. The report calls for schools to become more aggressive and accountable about truancy, but the evidence is equally strong that creating more supportive and engaging school climates must be part of the solution to help address the underlying causes.

The Harris report calls for more school and family accountability, better systems of tracking attendance and truant students, more intense interventions by public officials including home visits after a student’s first unexcused absence, more involvement by social-service agencies, and a commitment, if necessary, by district attorneys to prosecute parents of chronically truant kids.

In a critique of the report based on the experience gained struggling with truancy while teaching for five years in a very low-income urban community, Ellie Herman emphasizes that truancy is just a symptom of the larger core problem of poverty and its affects on families. She calls it “delusional to think that ‘accountability’…will solve the problem of the large number of children in this city whose families are in crisis.” Every chronic truant “came from a home in chaos.” In a country that has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world and a state that has cut services and education funding to the bone, we need to stop pretending that the truancy problem can be fixed if we “simply demand accountability,” and start having a “real and painful conversation,” about how to address the underlying problem.

One place to start is promoting schools that provide the developmental supports that help mitigate the effects of poverty, connect students with school, and engage them in learning. Steven Greenhut writes: “Truancy isn’t an imaginary problem, but it might be less severe if officials worried more about what happens once kids get into the classroom and less about keeping seats filled to keep the money flowing.” Underlying truancy, his article asserts, lies “bored kids and kids who have been failed by the system,” cutbacks in music and art programs, and persistent bullying and lack of safety. What we need, he concludes, is for more kids to want to go to school.

The role of school climate arguably is reflected in the increases in truancy rates that occur as children move through the school system. California Healthy Kids Survey data (2009-11 state report) reveals that the percentage of secondary students that skip school or cut class more than twice in the past twelve months rises from 8% in 7th grade to 29% in 11th. Across these same grades, school safety, connectedness, and supports — fundamental indicators of the quality of the school climate — all decline.

Another place to start to address the problem is to make better use of CHKS data to understand, raise awareness about, and address the needs of truants and the factors that influence chronic absenteeism. The survey asks students (1) how many times in the past 12 month they skipped school or cut classes; and (2) the reasons they miss school in the past 30 days. These reasons include illness, depression, concerns about safety, work and family obligations, and lack of interest in school. Schools can request a report that will provide only the survey results for the population that reports frequently skipping school.