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Alaska School Board survey measures climate, connection to community

Posted: Thursday, August 27, 2009

By McKibben Jackinsky

Climate change isn't always bad. Not when you're talking about schools, that is. That, and schools' connection to communities in which they exist, were the focus of a report by Bridget Smith of the Association of Alaska School Board at a recent Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board meeting.

Climate, for purposes of a three-year survey developed by the American Institute of Research, refers to factors contributing to the tone in a school, as well as faculty and student attitudes toward their schools. A positive school climate is indicated by well-managed classrooms, high and clearly stated expectations of individual responsibility, a feeling of safety while at school and the consistent acknowledgement by teachers and staff of all students.

Connectedness refers to students' experiences, perceptions and feelings about school. This includes feeling part of the school, that they are cared for personally by adults at school, that learning is a high priority, that they have close and supportive relationships with adults at school; and that they are treated consistently with respect by teachers and staff.

The survey is part of "Quality Schools Quality Students," a three-year program also known as "QS2" and offered by the Association of Alaska School Boards.

Four sites in KPBSD were chosen for the QS2 program: Nanwalek School; Ninilchik School; Seward Elementary, Middle and High schools; and Tebughna School in Tyonek.

"It was felt that those schools were struggling with connecting the community and school together," said Steve Atwater, KPBSD superintendent. "There was a recognition that they weren't as cohesive with the community. That's a goal of QS2, to tighten that relationship."

In some areas of the state, entire districts chose to be part of the QS2 program, said Smith, who is AASB's community engagement educator.

"The idea is that we offer a three-year schedule of services and activities," Smith said of involvement with identified sites. Services and activities are divided into four areas of guidance and training -- leadership; programs and staff; community, parents and students; and resources -- with federal funding available.

"The idea of QS2 is that after three years, districts will have moved along toward school improvement, improving student achievement, and that there would be a shared vision for what school district is to accomplish," Smith said.

In 2008, schools at the designated sites took the online survey. In 2009, the same schools, plus students at Chapman, Kalifornsky Beach, Moose Pass, Nikiski, Peninsula Optional, Port Graham, Razdolna, Soldotna Middle and Soldotna Montessori also participated, for a total of 871 students, or 15 percent of the district's student population. Across the state, more than 27,000 students and more than 5,000 faculty also participated.

"We just extended the invitation to anyone that wanted to participate," Atwater said of additional schools' involvement. "Those are schools that came forward on a volunteer basis."

Students in grades 6-12 responded to questions relating to high expectations, school safety, school leadership and student involvement, respectful climate, peer climate, caring adults, parent and community involvement, social and emotional learning and risk behaviors.

From Smith's report, survey results for KPBSD are similar to the statewide sample. On a scale of 0-5, with 5 being the highest ranking:

* Overall climate: KPBSD 3.71; whole sample 3.7;

* High expectations: KPBSD 4.01; whole sample 4.04;

* School safety: KPBSD 3.81; whole sample 3.76;

* School leadership and student involvement: KPBSD 3.26; whole sample 3.28;

* Overall connectedness: KPBSD 3.38; whole sample 3.34;

* Respectful climate: KPBSD 3.54; whole sample 3.46;

* Peer climate: KPBSD 2.99; whole sample 3.04;

* Caring adults: KPBSD 3.53; whole sample 3.49;

* Community involvement: KPBSD 3.45; whole sample 3.38;

* Social emotional learning: KPBSD 3.81; whole sample 3.77;

* Delinquent behaviors: KPBSD 1.99; whole sample 2;

* Student drug and alcohol use: KPBSD 1.56; whole sample 1.67;

What those scores mean is still too early to tell for this three-year program.

"We want to trend it out another year or so," Atwater said, adding that the eventual results will identify specific areas that need to be addressed. "If kids are feeling unsafe in schools, we'll certainly direct energy to changing that piece. And we want to continue to create connections with local entities to let kids know more than just their teachers care about them."

Students from Tebughna School are already involved in a community engagement project, painting a mural on a building at the village's airstrip.

"It's turning out beautifully," Smith said.

After hearing Smith's report, Sunni Hilts of Seldovia, school board vice president, encouraged the board to consider using the survey district-wide.

At this point, the survey has been done at no cost to the district. If the decision is made to use it district-wide, that would change, according to the superintendent.

"It's one of the school board goals to include a survey of this type," Atwater said, adding that school climate is an overall important piece of the district's education puzzle.

"The board recognizes that's one that needs to get attention," Atwater said. "Up to this point it's been hit or miss. I know the board is interested in knowing a way to gauge school climate. It's possible this will be the instrument we use to gauge that."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.



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