New focus on school climate in massive student survey

September 23, 2013
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Schools have a new interest in student connectedness to school. Credit: Michelle Flores, Aspire Capitol Heights Academy

The California Healthy Kids Survey – a massive survey of student behavior and a key resource for schools – has unveiled extensive revisions that put a stronger focus on students’ emotional health. The change reflects a growing interest among educators in school climate, a broad term that includes whether students and teachers feel supported and engaged, both socially and academically.

With some research indicating that schools with social, behavioral and learning supports for students outperform similar schools that lack those supports – and with some federal grants available for school climate enhancement – school administrators have become more interested in measuring student social and emotional health, said Greg Austin, director of the Health and Human Development Program at WestEd. The San Francisco nonprofit research firm develops and administers the survey.

“The needs of schools have changed,” Austin said. The revisions on the Healthy Kids Survey, the most extensive since its introduction in 1999 by the California Department of Education, sharpen the focus on school climate and culture and add a new supplementary section on social-emotional health, he said.

“We’ve got to have a survey where the school superintendent will say, ‘Wow, this is something we can really use,'” Austin said.

Staying relevant

Adding to the interest in school climate is a new requirement in the recently enacted K-12 school finance law that calls for districts to pay more attention to student well being. In addition to measurements of academics, districts must now also track eight state priorities that include school climate, pupil engagement and parental involvement. By July 1, 2014, governing boards of school districts are required to establish an annual “Local Control and Accountability Plan” to show how they intend to meet the state priorities, as well as their own goals. A survey of students, parents and teachers is mentioned in the law as a way to measure school climate.

The shift is also prompted by the need for the survey to prove its relevance to school districts, some of which struggle to find the time for yet another task that takes away from classroom instruction, or the funds to cover costs. Districts spend about 30 cents per student to administer the survey in overhead costs, such as photocopies and staff time, Austin said.

Over the years, the survey has asked millions of students about their use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, as well as whether the students have an adult they can talk to at school or at home. The result is the largest database in the nation of student information that can be sorted and analyzed by state, district or school level. State and community health and mental health organizations, as well as school districts, rely on the data to evaluate trends and provide evidence for grant-based interventions.

At its peak, from 2003 through 2010, almost 900 districts, more than 7,000 schools and 1 million students participated in the Healthy Kids Survey every two years, Austin said. Participation was mandated by the California Department of Education between 2003-04 and 2009-10 for hundreds of schools that received federal funds for drug and violence prevention programs, as a way to evaluate the success of the prevention work.

But when that federal initiative, known as the Title IV Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, ended in 2010, so did that mandate and funding. A less widespread mandate is still in effect, with districts required to administer the survey every two years to students in seventh, ninth and eleventh grades if they receive funding from the state Tobacco Use Prevention Education program and the federal Safe and Supportive Schools program.

But the loss of the Title IV mandate and funding had an immediate impact. About one-third of the schools, most of them elementary level, stopped administering the survey after 2010, Austin said.

“About two-thirds of the districts continued with the survey, because they realized the value of the data, but in this climate of decreased funding, some of them dropped the ball, saying they didn’t have the time,” said Hilva Chan, education programs consultant at the California Department of Education.

Valuable data

In San Diego, the County Office of Education considered the data too valuable to lose.

“For us, the survey is the only source for countywide data about how are kids are doing in terms of safety, health, connectedness to school, and resilience, as well as whether kids are using alcohol or other drugs or tobacco,” said Music Watson, spokesperson for the San Diego County Office of Education. The county office oversees 42 districts with a total of 800 schools serving 500,000 students.

To keep the data collection going, the county office obtained money from the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to cover survey costs in 2012-13 for schools that lacked other funding, and plans to do so again in 2014-15.

When it became apparent that some Orange County schools might drop out of the survey, the Orange County Health Care Agency stepped in to cover the costs in 2011-12 for 10 districts serving 81 schools – and also paid the $50-per-report fee so each school could view data specific to its own students, said Amy Buch, manager of the health promotion division of the agency. Data from the Healthy Kids Survey has been used to obtain a $300,000 grant for Orange County schools and youth clubs to participate in Friday Night Live, a statewide program aimed at empowering students to address local issues, such as traffic safety near schools, Buch said.

Because early funding for the survey was tied to the federal Title IV Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, the survey included extensive questioning about patterns of drug use and signs of addiction. A new, more relevant survey might increase participation, Austin said.

Michael Furlong, director of the Center for School-Based Youth Development at UC Santa Barbara, led the development of the new social and emotional section and has had a long interest in “figuring out how to measure positive things about kids,” he said. He said traits such as youth empathy, self-awareness, persistence, emotion regulation, gratitude, zest and optimism can be measured with the correct tools. The data can then be used to target positive interventions or develop programs to better meet student needs in and out of the classroom.

“We’ve been getting pushback from schools that say, ‘We don’t want to do a survey that’s all about drugs,'” Austin said.

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