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.

Include School Climate in School Effectiveness Measures

Across the nation, key education stakeholders have increasingly recognized the need to find a better way to “grade” school effectiveness than just standardized test scores, such as California’s Academic Performance Index (API).  How do we provide parents and other stakeholders with the information they need to determine the quality of local schools and hold the schools accountable?

In California, Governor Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1458 (otherwise known as the Steinberg bill), which calls for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, with approval from the State Board of Education, to design a plan for an expanded API that de-emphasizes standardized tests in evaluating schools (giving them a weight of 60 percent or less for high schools).

What would such an expanded school accountability system look like?  The Steinberg bill encourages including measures of student readiness for college or career.   Merrill Vargo advocates for indicators that would enable California to determine whether schools are becoming more equitable; for example, resource allocation, social capital for students, staff supports, parent satisfaction, and community engagement).  These indicators, she notes, may matter more than test scores even if they can’t be as accurately measured.

School climate indicators need to be part of the mix.  One policy implication that the Center on Education Policy draws from its study of six School Improvement Grantees (SIGs) is that “using gains in students’ test scores as the primary gauge of the effectiveness of SIGs focuses too narrowly on just one element of success and ignores important improvements in school climate among recipient schools.”

An example of what a broader effectiveness measure might look like is the School Climate Index (SCI) developed by WestEd for the California Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) project and included in a School Climate Report Card that each grantee receives.  These reports are publicly available on CDE’s DataQuest.

The SCI is a summary score based largely on data from the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), as well as truancy data in the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data system (CALPADS).  The CHKS indicators included in the SCI include the degree to which students report school-based developmentally supportive environmental conditions, connectedness, safety, and low physical and emotional violence.

SCI data are now being analyzed to determine the stability of this index and its effectiveness to reliably measure change in school climate over time.  But variations in SCI scores have already been found to relate to variations in API scores.  Cal-S3 Factsheet #3, School Climate and Academic Performance Across California High Schools, shows that as SCI scores increase among California high schools — as the schools became safer, more supportive, and more engaging — so do the Academic Performance Index (API) scores.

As I shall discuss in a later blog post, it also has been effective for differentiating schools that “beat the odds” and perform better on the California Standardized Test than would be predicted based on their demographic composition.

The evidence is leading to one conclusion: School climate indicators should be incorporated into school accountability systems, provided to the public to determine the quality of their local schools, and used to guide school improvement efforts.  However, any such expansion would require that all schools have common, high-quality data on the new indicators.

Unfortunately, due to changes in federal law, the California Department of Education no longer requires that school districts biennially administer the California Healthy Kids Survey, which has been the main source of data on school climate statewide.  Over the past two years, participation in the survey has declined by a third.  But those schools that continue to administer the survey can now request their own School Climate Report Card to use along with the API to guide their efforts to improve academic achievement and graduation rates.