Saturday, January 26, 2013

0 Increasing the Number of Quality Schools in Boston: School Climate

Whether we realize it or not, when selecting a school to send our child to, we all assess the climate of each school we examine prior to making our choices regarding the school we would like our child to attend. We have all gone into schools which feel friendly, inviting, and supportive, and others which feel exclusionary, unwelcoming, and even unsafe. These feelings, attitudes, and the reputations which evolve from a school’s environment are referred to as school climate. This is true whether we live in Boston or a suburb.

School climate has been recognized by educators and researchers as one of the key ingredients to whether a school succeeds or fails. Boston Public Schools recognizes the importance of school climate and in fact attempts to measure it through their annual "School Climate Survey" which is sent to every BPS family as well as teachers and students who each receive their own version of the survey. Unfortunately, the rate of response is extremely low as you can see in BPS' school climate reports from 2010 (seems to be the most recent one online):
  • Out of 56,486 surveys sent to families, only 7,598 were returned which equals 13.5%. 
  • Out of 4,401 surveys sent to teachers, 2,258 were returned which equals 53.3% which is better, but still makes me wonder why didn't all the teachers return these? 
  • Out of 41,491 (survey is only given to grades 3-12) surveys given to students, only 23,840 were returned which equals 57.5%. My problem with this one is: this was given in school, via pencil and paper, so how come all of them were not returned? Check out pages 3 and 4 for individual school numbers, quite interesting!
As we are now in the midst of trying to create a new assignment system for Boston schools, there has been quite a bit of conversation regarding "quality" schools. For the purpose of producing the required models requested by the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC), the measurement regarding which "tier" a school falls into regarding their level of "quality" are being based solely on two years of MCAS scores: achievement (2/3) and the Student Growth Percentile (SGP) (1/3). According to Patricia Kinsella, a QUEST member who attended the January 23, 2013 EAC meeting, the people who came up with SGP as a measure said that it should never be used to evaluate schools because there is no way to know what part of growth came from school and what came from non-school factors. Many of us who attended the EAC meetings have additional concerns about the chosen measurement tools as there are issues regarding whether they should be used, how often review of a school's "tier" should occur and more.  

Right now parents can review each school's "Report Card" (BPS Report on Teaching and Learning) on the BPS website, which gives a profile of the school inclusive of racial and socio-economic status, types of students (regular ed - ELL), MCAS and NAEP scores and a brief written description submitted by school personnel. 

The issue with the use of the above tools for measuring a school is that though we arm ourselves with the information, many parents, myself included, have chosen schools for our children despite what the BPS information tells us about a school. I toured schools, asked questions, spoke with teachers and parents and then ranked my choices with the highest weight given to my own feelings about each school and honestly, the test scores really were not as relevant to me. Of course, we should also recognize that what feels perfect to one parent may feel horrible to another parent because we are each individuals. Because of the low response rate regarding school climate, even with the BPS surveys which I do believe ask the right questions, we can not really utilize the climate reports when assessing a school's climate which seems to be one of the top factors parents consider when choosing a school, according to years of conversation on choosing schools with others.

In November I submitted my application to the Citizen Nominating Panel (CNP) for the open Boston School Committee (BSC) seat. The application was made up of twelve questions regarding everything from experience to specific school district priorities. One of the questions specifically asked how I would address school climate. Considering the importance of the ongoing discussions district-wide on how to assess schools and what factors contribute to parents' choice of schools, I am sharing my answer to the climate question with all of you below as I feel it is an important piece that has been left out of how we rank each school for their quality standing. I will also share my suggestions with Dr. Johnson and the BSC at their next meeting. 

Question: Given the diversity of the students in the Boston Public Schools, how would you address the school climate?

My answer:

School climate is influenced by several factors inclusive of:
  • Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
  • All members of each school community being engaged and respected.
  • Students, families and staff working together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • All staff’s modeling and nurturing attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person’s contribution to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment.
Each School’s climate is also influenced by unique factors:
  • The physical environment of the school,
  • The characteristics and mix of students, teachers and parents who are members of the school community, 
  • Connections between the school and its surrounding neighborhood, 
  • Social interactions within the school, 
  • The leadership role played by the school principal, 
  • The morale of the teaching staff, 
  • Teaching practices in classrooms, and 
  • The formal school policies.
I believe that addressing school climate begins with ensuring collaboration among the principal, personnel, students and their families. The key to creating effective team-work leading to school success is the principal as she or he generally sets the tone for the entire school. An effective principal is a strong leader who is able to motivate the school staff regarding the importance of performance and focuses on results as well as fostering a safe, supportive, and rigorous climate for everyone. The most successful principals will create an environment where teachers, staff, students and families feel that they are respected and share in the fundamental operations of the school thus providing multiple opportunities for each to develop new ideas and methods, assume leadership roles and contribute to the success of not only these individual groups, but also the school as a whole. In addition, these principals are able to galvanize everyone to work toward higher expectations and achievement for every student by utilizing effective instructional practices that nurture and challenge, take into account the diversity of the school population and are culturally relevant. A sustainable, positive school climate fosters youth development and the learning necessary for a productive, contributing and satisfying life in society. This positive climate will generally lead to higher success rates for all of the students within the school. 

To address the climate of the schools in Boston, I suggest that we assess all of our schools to find out if they already have a principal like the one described above as well as assessing whether we have highly qualified staff at the school, whether there are facility or safety issues which need to be addressed, the level of family and community engagement taking place, and students', parents' and school personnel's experience of school life. I realize we have school climate surveys annually which may help in any assessment, but historically the response rates to those surveys is extremely low, so we should seek other ways to accurately assess each of our schools going forward. 

One way we should consider evaluating our schools’ climates is by creating deliberate sets of focus groups for each school as I have found that staff and families become much more open and solution-focused when in a group discussing the issues that need to be addressed rather than just taking an individual survey. These focus groups, in addition to the SPC and SSC, could then become another tool to increase the engagement of students, staff and families toward the goal of whole school improvement and fostering a more inclusive school climate. 

At both the Mozart, under Al Taylor, and at the Irving with Arthur Unobskey, I have seen exactly the type of principal I described above and I have worked closely with both of them to help turn what were once under-selected schools into schools which are now highly-selected, or on the way to becoming such a school as I truly believe the Irving will become the best middle school in Boston within the next few years. I have also had the honor of working closely with the staff of both schools by forming partnerships that have led to greater family and community involvement and pride in each school as well as allowing us to work as a cohesive team to move the schools forward by improving content-area and elective curricula, methods and practices, obtaining the funding necessary for each school to improve the academic, arts, physical education and extra-curricular offerings and to purchase much needed supplies, computers and other items necessary for the schools to provide every student with a rigorous and relevant educational experience. I also continue to advocate for my children and all of the students of each school by encouraging, and sometimes pushing, the principals and staff toward higher goals for themselves and each student as well as thinking “outside the box” to improve each school. 

If a school does not have a principal like the one described above, we should encourage the Superintendent to either create professional development which can assist the current principal to develop these traits and abilities, or hire principals with these traits and abilities. We should start with the schools which are under-performing first and then move on to the other schools as necessary. As we increase the number of schools within the district which have a positive school climate, the climate of the district as a whole should become more positive which is a goal I believe all of us would like to achieve.

In addition to the answer I gave on my application above, please consider the following when thinking about how school climate affects each school and families' choice:

I picked the Mozart prior to most of the data we now have available being created and despite being told "Oh no! You do not want to send your daughter there, it is a horrible school!" (by a BPS central office administrator fyi!) because of the reputation that person had heard (which was a few years out of date). Unfortunately, poor reputations of our schools persist even years after positive change has occurred which I see all the time with the Irving despite the phenomenal progress we have made! 

I chose the Mozart as my first choice for kindergarten for my daughter because I toured the school, asked questions, spoke with teachers and parents and, lol, because the Principal, then Al Taylor, was the ONLY BPS principal who, upon learning that I was Chair of the BPS SpedPAC at that time, was thrilled by that information (instead of the usual gritted teeth and "polite" smile I usually encountered). The school felt wonderful and everything I learned during my tour and by speaking with families and staff made me sure it was the school I wanted my precious daughter in, so I was thankful when she got her assignment to the Mozart that March. 

Three years later I again chose the Mozart as my first choice for her sister, my other precious daughter, because my feelings about the school had proved correct as my older daughter was receiving a fabulous education and thriving there. My younger daughter also obtained a K1 seat at the Mozart and we were a proud Mozart family for the past ten years! 

As for the Irving school, when choosing it for my oldest daughter, if you read my piece regarding Advanced Work Class under the new proposals, you already know I took a leap of faith during the registration process. What I did not mention in the AWC article is that when looking at middle schools for my son in 1998-99, due to the unwelcoming attitude of the AWC teacher for a child with ADHD as well as my experience as an advocate who attended several meetings at the Irving over the years, I swore that my children would never attend the Irving. Seriously, the climate of the school was so horrendous that it gave off a depressing vibe due to the actions of the prior admistrators.

Thankfully, in June 2009 (prior to my daughter starting sixth grade in September), due to community pressure, Dr. Johnson removed the former principal and appointed Arthur Unobskey as the new Irving Principal. 

Because of the partnerships formed between Mr. Unobskey and members of the Roslindale Pathway Advisory Group (RPAG) as well as the larger community, we started to see improvements at the Irving within the first year as reported by the Roslindale Transcript in January 2010. The formation of the Roslindale K-8 Pathway in March 2010 added yet another sense of urgency to the staff of the Irving to improve outcomes for every student at the school and the whole school, and as a bonus I observed a complete turn-around to the climate within the Irving. The team-work and shared leadership which developed as a result of the improved climate at the school, as well as expanding our school day, have all contributed to the amazing progress we have seen our Irving students make in  a short amount of time, inclusive of our 6th grade students making a 29% increase in growth on the 2012 Math MCAS!

I would strongly urge Dr. Johnson, BPS, the BSC and EAC members to all consider the lessons we can learn from the Irving and the Roslindale Pathway when attempting to designate which schools are truly "quality schools". In addition to the recommendations I make in my answer, I suggest utilizing what we learned at the Irving and incorporating key elements, such as putting in place an advisory group of parents from each of the schools in the new pathways, as "best practices" for helping the schools which are still struggling. 
And for those of you wondering, I did get get asked to interview with the CNP for the open BSC seat and I am proud that, after the interview with the twelve-member panel, the CNP recommended me as one of the candidates for the Mayor to consider for the open seat, which I see as a great accomplishment. As expected though, Michael O'Neill was re-appointed to the BSC for another four year term and I congratulate him on his re-appointment. 


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