Georgia Tackles School Climate

By Lindsey Hofer

Faced with unimpressive high school graduation rates and dissatisfied with rates of absenteeism and exclusionary discipline in their schools, Georgia education leaders turned for answers to a compelling body of research on school climate. Since implementation of programs aimed at improving school climate, Georgia has seen a rise in graduation rates each year, jumping over 11 percentage points between 2011 and 2015, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Education. Disciplinary referrals dropped 24 percent in the same period.

Schools with positive school climates tend to have better test scores and graduation rates compared with schools perceived to have negative climates, according to research summarized in a 2012 report by Amrit Thapa and others for the National School Climate Center.

The Georgia State Board of Education adopted school climate as an early indicator in its academic accountability system in 2010, making it the first state to do so. Georgia law requires a “star rating” system be used to address school climate. Based on surveys, student discipline data, safe and substance-free learning environment data, and attendance, each school receives a rating between one and five stars, with five indicating an excellent school climate. The board follows these data and continues to call upon organizations and experts to present on aspects of school climate at their meetings.

One of the programs Georgia implemented is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a data-driven framework to help schools reduce disciplinary incidents, make students feel safer at school, and create an environment for improved academic outcomes. In Georgia, 84 percent of PBIS schools received a four- or five-star school climate rating, compared with only 56 percent of schools without PBIS.

In addition, many Georgia schools (as well as Maryland and Ohio schools) have begun pairing PBIS with Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), which works to increase awareness of mental health issues facing youth and connect them and their families with appropriate services. Around one quarter of children and young people in the developed world have an identifiable mental health problem, according to researchers Katherine Weare and Melanie Nind. Awareness of these problems reduces stigma and helps students and families seek treatment, which in turn leads to a more positive, productive educational environment.

According to the NASBE State Board Insight database, Maryland’s board also discussed school climate and discipline as indicators of school success in the context of the Every Student Succeeds Act. (For 2016, only ESSA-related items drawn from the minutes of state board meetings are tracked in the database.) Yet Georgia’s early results indicate that this is a fruitful area for other state boards of education, which may find—as Georgia is—that students who feel safe and comfortable in their school environments have a greater ability to learn and succeed.

Lindsey Hofer is a NASBE intern.

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