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School Climate and Student Well-Being Issues We'll Be Watching in 2014

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We cover a lot of issues here at Rules for Engagement, so the stories we're eager to watch in 2014 could be found in almost any section of a daily newspaper. Our blog posts cover the vast territory between student suspension rates and school lunches, but they share a common thread of addressing two central questions: How can educators address the issues, habits, and attitudes students bring with them to school that may affect how and what they learn? And what, other than knowledge, should educators strive to send home with their students? Teachers are asked to tackle poverty alongside arithmetic, and district leaders consider shaping students' eating habits along with their study habits.

Here's a list Ross and I compiled of the issues we'll be following in the next year that may affect those responsibilities:

Discipline: Some districts are losing their tolerance for zero tolerance. In big cities across the United States, school systems are seeking to ease harsh discipline practices that land students in the juvenile-justice system for all sorts of nonviolent infractions. Whether these large examples are trendsetters or merely well-publicized outliers remains to be seen, but expect to see some other major districts proudly transitioning to models that reject harsh discipline policies.

Finances: It's anyone's guess whether Congress will renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and in so doing, create new investments in school climate initiatives. We're also watching state and local budgets to track the forces that put pressure of district budgets, affecting the hiring of employees who can have a big effect on student well-being, like school nurses, counselors, and school psychologists. And we'll be watching how districts who've secured federal Race to the Top dollars roll out plans for school climate initiatives.

Data Collection: When Senate Democrats announced their plan for ESEA reauthorization in June 2013, one of the key components involved collecting data on school climate. Even without ESEA reauthorization, though, many are pushing for districts to increase the amount of data collected on student life and discipline rates, which could be a real boon to education researchers.

Food: A number of Congressional representatives have introduced bills to ease the new school lunch requirements. Short of sweeping changes to the standards, many districts will likely launch their own efforts to address both lunch service and lunch quality. 

Guns: In Colorado, voters recalled legislators who supported gun-control legislation in 2013. In Idaho recently, voters collected enough signatures to call a recall election of a school board chairman who wanted to arm school staff. In Arkansas, meanwhile, a group of districts continue to use a state rule designed for private security agencies to arm some teachers and staff. With such distinct but entrenched viewpoints on guns across the country and with continued concerns about student safety stoked by occasional acts of violence, we will be watching how the conversation over guns in schools develops over the next year. Many of the flurry of state school safety bills filed after the shooting in Newtown, Conn., will likely be revived as states start fresh legislative sessions.

Poverty: There's a growing perception that the distance between the haves and the have nots is expanding, even as the economy shows signs of recovery. Policymakers are taking notice. After reading this powerful New York Times series on a 12-year-old homeless child girl named Dasani, newly elected New York City officials invited the girl and her family to participate in their inauguration activities. Federal data show that one out of every five children under 18 lives in a household with an income below the federal poverty level. Will the freshly stoked concern about poor children translate into new policies at the local, state, and federal levels? And how will educators be involved in those efforts?

Grit: Will grit remain the edu buzzword of choice? Here are some potential alternatives: resilience, moxie, spunk, backbone, determination, fortitude, and pluck. We are pretty proud that we know how to use a thesaurus.

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