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Absenteeism, Teacher Stress, and School Safety: School Climate Factors to Watch in 2019

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Students' ability to engage and succeed in the classroom is influenced by how safe, supported, and connected they feel at school, researchers have found. 

While educators around the country adopt intentional efforts and programs to improve school climates, learning environments are also influenced by a range of outside factors, from neighborhood violence to natural disasters to federal policy changes. In 2018, schools saw a convergence of those factors: public concerns about safety fueled by school shootings, a fresh wave of teacher activism, and a changing federal approach to civil rights enforcement.

Here's how those issues, and a few others, may shape school climates in 2019.

Chronic Absenteeism Takes Center Stage

The Every Student Succeeds Act should provide plenty of motivation for educators to bring down the number of students who regularly miss school. And school attendance is influenced by a range of factors, including how safe a student feels at school, how interested they are in classroom work, and whether or not they miss class for disciplinary reasons like suspensions.

The federal education law requires schools to publicly report how many students are chronically absent, and 36 states included the measure in their school accountability plans. Though states adopted varying definitions, chronic absenteeism is often defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, including excused absences due to illness and suspensions.

States and districts that worked to boost attendance in the pre-ESSA era often relied on student supports and improving school climates. New York city, for example, has matched some students with mentors  to help them overcome obstacles that led to absences. In Oregon, some districts have worked with tribal groups to include native students' culture and language in their practices and to build trust with their families.

Recognizing the Role of the Teacher

Teacher activism efforts in 2018 showed that many educators feel stretched too thin, underpaid, and misunderstood. And a public opinion survey showed that, while respondents value teachers, many don't want their own children to choose education as a career path.

Recognizing those tensions, many schools that have enacted social-emotional learning and school climate strategies have started not with students, but with their teachers.

And the social-emotional learning movement, which encourages schools to nurture students' development in areas like relationship skills and problem solving, has increasingly called for a focus on "adult SEL." Some districts have acted on this by giving teachers freedom to collaborate, solve classroom-management challenges and plan lessons together, and they have sought to motivate adults as much as students. And how teachers feel at school affects how students learn at school.

Will more schools embrace this approach? Will it pay off in better learning environments for students? 

Ongoing Discipline Debates

Will schools reverse course on changes in discipline policies they've made in recent years? 

Many of those policies were designed to reduce the use of suspensions through alternative approaches, like restorative practices. They also aimed to drive down disproportionately high discipline rates for black and Latino students by tightening up school rules about behavior like "defiance" so that they would be less prone to being subjectively and inconsistently applied.

Supporters of such policies say they help build more inclusive, supportive school climates and address discrimination that can make students of color feel like they don't belong. Opponents say some schools have been too aggressive in their discipline changes, creating unstable learning environments by keeping students in the classroom when they misbehave.

Those opponents, including many conservative policy groups, supported U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos's recent decision to revoke civil rights guidance issued by the Obama administration in 2014. That guidance put schools on notice that policies that lead to disproportionately high discipline rates for students of one racial or ethnic group could put them at risk of being found in violation of federal civil rights laws, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

But that guidance wasn't the sole motivator for changes to discipline policies. Many states also took action to rein in educators' discretion about issuing suspensions and expulsions, particularly in the lower grades. And many district administrators said the guidance didn't spark the changes they'd made. In a survey of 950 district leaders in 47 states administered by AASA, the School Superintendents Association, just 16 percent of respondents said their districts had modified discipline policies and practices as a result of the guidance. The rest cited other reasons.

Still, the decision to revoke the guidance could cause some schools to step off the gas in their efforts to rework student discipline, and that could change the experiences of the students they teach.

Police in Schools

How will calls to increase the number of school resource officers affect learning environments? And will schools change their approach to how law enforcement should interact with students in their buildings?

A push for more school-based law enforcement has been among the most common responses to the mass school shootings in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas, last year. The Department of Justice has provided more federal grant funding to help schools and local police departments place officers in schools, and Florida schools passed a law less than a month after the February shooting there that requires each school to have at least one law enforcement officer or "guardian" who has participated in a special training program. Other states passed laws providing additional funding for school safety, including school police.

In addition, a state task force tasked with reviewing the Parkland shooting has recommended providing school law enforcement with more student information and more discretion on when they can make an arrest. 

Those calls concern student data privacy wonks and civil rights groups that argue school-based law enforcement often have vaguely defined roles and too frequently get involved in routine disciplinary matters better handled by school administrators. For example, a South Carolina school resource officer violently dragged a student from her desk and arrested her under the state's law that prohibits disturbing a school after she refused to surrender her cell phone in math class. Black students are consistently arrested at higher rates than their peers, and they are more likely to attend schools with law enforcement.

The Obama-era discipline guidance said schools are responsible for ensuring that the law enforcement assigned to their buildings protect students' civil rights, whether or not those officers are directly employed by schools.

The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that officers are trained in how to interact with students, that their roles are carefully outlined in a memorandum of understanding with the school district, and that they stay out of student discipline. As schools scramble to staff officer positions, will they abide by those guidelines? Will their efforts be enough to address the concerns of civil rights and student groups?

Photo: Getty Images


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