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Westport schools get generally high marks on 'climate' survey

Published 2:36 pm, Wednesday, March 27, 2013
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Students, educators and parents give generally high marks to the quality of campus life at Westport's public schools, according to the recently released results of a district-wide survey.

Developed by the Manhattan-based nonprofit National School Climate Center, the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory last fall polled students in grades three through 12, school employees and parents on a range of measures of "school climate" topics, which refers to the quality of school life, as experienced by those three groups. Responses to the computer-based survey were anonymous.

Based on the survey's five-point scale, students on average ranked every category of school climate higher than three points. Scores higher than 3.5 equate to a "positive" rating, marks in the 2.5 to 3.5 range are "neutral" and scores below 2.5 are "negative," according to Darlene Faster, the National School Climate Center's chief operating officer and director of communications.

Among the 10 categories in which they assessed school climate, students rated "safety rules and norms" highest, with an average score of more than four. Their scores for "respect for diversity" were the second-highest, followed by their marks for social support from adults and sense of physical security.

"They're very positive," Michael Rizzo, the school district's director of pupil services, said Monday of the survey scores. "There's a lot this district can be proud of, and they give us direction on where we can focus our efforts as we move ahead."

Conversely, students gave their lowest ratings to their sense of social-emotional security, with an average rating of about 3.5. Lower student marks in that category are not uncommon, Faster told Board of Education members at their March 18 meeting.

"We do tend to see students ranking this lower than the adults, and that's because it does tend to happen in unsupervised areas," she said. "They're not often going home and talking to their parents about these situations."

Social-emotional security also ranked as the lowest-rated category among parents and staff.

Paralleling another broad trend, students' scores for "support for learning" dropped between fifth and sixth grades and also between 10th and 11th grades.

Male and female student scores were similar in every category. Female pupils' ratings for their sense of physical security and social-emotional security, as well as support for learning, were slightly higher than their male counterparts' scores in those categories.

Students', parents' and school staff's scores tended to align quite closely. But some categories showed diverging views. While staff rated "social and civic learning" in the four-point range, students and parents scored it in the three-point range. In addition to social-emotional security and support for learning, the disparity in social and civic learning scores constituted an area for potential improvement in the district, Faster said.

The Comprehensive School Climate Inventory comprises one of the most comprehensive surveys of student, parent and staff attitudes about schools' social and learning environments ever conducted in the district. Rizzo described the Climate Inventory as the "gold standard" of comparable surveys.

School climate scores are correlated to academic performance for both middle-school and high-school students, Faster told the school board. She praised the district's overall survey performance.

"The research that is out there is really showing that the work that you are doing has an impact and really drives success for your students, not just now, but later in life," she added.

Pupil response rates to the survey ranged from a high of 96 percent at Coleytown Elementary School to a low of 80 percent at Staples High School. Staples staff posted the highest response rate, 89 percent, among employees at the eight schools. At a 50 percent rate, staff responses were lowest at Bedford Middle School. Parents at Coleytown Middle School recorded the highest response rate, 43 percent, among that group. Coleytown Elementary School parents were the least responsive; only 20 percent of them took the survey.

The survey data are now being evaluated by each school's "safe school climate team," which comprises administrators; teachers; other staff such as psychologists and counselors; and parents. Those teams will then develop action plans to improve the school climate at each of the district's eight campuses, according to Rizzo. In addition, the district safe school climate team, which includes a representative from each school's climate team will meet to share each school's goals and action plans.

pschott@bcnnew.com; 203-255-4561, ext. 118; twitter.com/paulschott