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Improving School Climate: Safety as the Starting Point

There’s no magic formula for student success in school.

Ask any superintendent–regardless of the size or location of their district–and they’ll tell you that student achievement takes an all-fronts approach.

But for school leaders, the quest to improve achievement often leads to a question: “Where to start?”

Recent research might help point the way.

In a 2016 Review of Education Research meta-study, experts reviewed over 15 years worth of school research and concluded that school climate has a significant impact on student performance, as a recent K12 Insight white paper highlights. Of the 78 studies researchers examined, 84 percent found that positive school climates led to higher achievement.

“Our findings suggest that by promoting a positive climate, schools can allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socio-economic inequalities, and enable more social mobility,” says study co-author Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California.

The concept of school climate is most often tied to student safety and behavior–for good reason. Keeping students safe is priority No. 1 for any school leader. But to truly improve the quality of their district, school leaders need to focus on more than just safety.

The 5 dimensions of school climate

During the last three school years, researchers at K12 Insight have conducted a national survey of students, parents, and school staff to measure perceptions of their schools’ climate and quality.

More than 200,000 participants rated their schools along five key dimensions of school climate:

  1. Academic support. What kind of academic supports are you providing for students that will help them succeed?
  2. Student support. Do all students feel as if they belong in the school? Is everyone treated fairly, no matter their circumstances or who they are? Do students feel as if they have a voice in the school?
  3. School leadership. When you talk to teachers and parents and others across the school system, is there clear communication and singleness of purpose? If there are concerns about programs or decisions, are those concerns being fairly and adequately addressed? Is there a sense that the school or district is responsive to these issues?
  4. Family involvement. What kinds of opportunities does your school provide for parents or other family members to connect and engage? Does your school or district make a concerted effort to understand the individual needs of each child, their goals, or interests, as perceived by their parents?
  5. Safety and behavior.  How aware are students and staff of what is required to have a safe learning environment? Do they know and understand security protocols and procedures? Do they see their school as a safe place? What about disciplinary actions? Are they perceived as fair or biased? Do staff treat each other with respect?

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When it comes to academic support, for instance, the research found that students, parents, and staff members all rated low the ability for teachers to demonstrate how school lessons connect to a child’s life outside of school. This points to an important need for school leaders to focus on academic relevance in their schools.

Break down in perceptions

Focusing on different dimensions of school quality and climate has helped K12 Insight researchers surface other important trends across school districts. In particular, the research points to contrasting perceptions between parents and students on some key issues.

While 83 percent of parents rated the overall quality of their local school as good or excellent, only 64 percent of students felt the same way. And, while 88 percent of parents felt school administrators were courteous when parents had a concern, only 63 percent of students said administrators made decisions that are in students’ best interests.

Understanding these differences in perceptions–and how to address them–is vital to student success, says Dr. Alisha Martinez, senior director of research and business analytics at K12 Insight. This is especially true when it comes to boosting family involvement in schools–a key dimension in K12 Insight’s school climate research.

“When schools build partnerships with families–responding to their concerns and honoring their contributions–they create a range of benefits for students. Benefits include better academic performance (Henderson and Mapp, 2002); higher reading scores, language growth and development, motivation to achieve, prosocial behavior, and quality work habits (Harvard Family Research Project, 2006/2007); higher graduation rates and reduced alcohol use and antisocial behavior (Michigan Department of Education, 2011); improved school readiness, higher student achievement, better social skills and behavior, and increased likelihood of graduating.”   

While a standard school climate survey can help identify broad-level issues, diving deep, with a thorough examination of all five pillars of school climate, helps school leaders unearth hidden challenges in the quest to serve the needs of the whole child.

For more on K12 Insight’s national survey data and how your district can address issues in all five dimensions of school climate, don’t miss K12 Insight’s upcoming webinar, “Turn school quality data into action,” on March 5 at 2pm EST/11am PST. Dr. Martinez will highlight key findings in the research and outline steps to help improve your school climate. Register for free here.