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.

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