Sullivan schools may become model for 'climate improvement'

Rick Wagner • Nov 21, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County Schools may become a national model of “school climate” improvement for the nation.

It’s got nothing to do with heating, air conditioning and humidity, and it’s not about dust or air quality.

But it has everything to do with how students, teachers, parents and others in the school community interact with one another, including issues such as stamping out bullying and racism in the schools.

Bill Preble and others from Henniker, N.H.-based Main Street Academix visited all 27 county schools this week to facilitate school climate surveys in grades 3-12.

The data, collected by trained students in the schools, will be analyzed by Main Street Academix and partners at the University of Massachusetts and returned to the schools in early January, Preble said.

Data collected in past school climate surveys indicates that an 11 percent increase in academic achievement came to county schools that effectively addressed school climate between 2002 and 2005, according to Preble and school system spokeswoman Janie Barnes.

At that time, Preble said, two-thirds of 36 then-county schools made school climate improvements that resulted in an 11 percent academic improvement compared to the one-third that did not make adequate school climate improvement.

Academix began working with the county system in 2002 as part of a consent decree the county school system reached with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of racial discrimination and indifference at Sullivan East High School, based on complaints by an African-American student about treatment of multiple black students.

Preble said the Sullivan County Board of Education decided to continue with the school climate surveys and program in 2005 because of the positive impact on academics and the schools in general.

Wendell Smith, assistant principal and head of the county system’s Respect and Leadership Committee, said student Respect and Leadership Teams from the four county high schools — South, North, Central and East — will travel to elementary schools in their zones Dec. 14 to do a program focused on respect and leadership, which ties in directly with school climate.

And at Cedar Grove Elementary Thursday and Kingsley Elementary Friday, part of the climate survey included an afternoon student play with anti-bullying and positive school climate elements.

The climate survey in Sullivan County and another system in Ohio may become models for the new National School Climate Improvement Project that may supersede the Safe and Drug-Free School section of No Child Left Behind, Preble and Barnes said.

Preble said that is the working title of what will be part of the reauthorized No Child Left Behind in the Obama administration next year.

“What they’re (federal officials) looking at is models for school climate improvement,” Preble said. “We’re collecting a new round of Sullivan County data in grades 3 through 12 in all 27 of Sullivan County’s schools.”

At each school, the Academix team met with a student team to train them to give the survey to the rest of their peers in those grades. That team partners with the faculty at each school.

“We get much better data that way,” Preble said.

Academix will analyze the data in December, and in the first few weeks of January will report findings back to the schools.

Student teams will report the results to the faculty, which will develop goals based on the data.

Those goals will go into the school improvement plan required by and monitored by Tennessee education officials.

The National School Climate Council is pushing for five new standards on which the surveys are based, Preble said.

In a nutshell, those standards are:

•Establish a school climate improvement plan and goals based on survey results.

•Review school policies and infrastructure to determine their effect on implementing goals in improvement plan.

•Work toward effective and personalized teaching and learning, including what is responsible teaching.

•Make a school environment of openness and welcomeness for students, teachers and the community, including parents.

•Work toward civic engagement and social justice, ensuring parents and the community support schools through activities, and parents, teachers, students and others are not discriminated against based on race, gender or other such factors.

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