Conference Daily Online

AASA's award-winning newsletter, providing daily coverage of key speakers, topical sessions, photos and video clips of the conference.

Utterback Sees Climate Surveys as Basis for Acting to Raise Student Performance

Eight years ago, only 35 percent of African Americans in North Clackamas School District in Portland, Ore., graduated from high school. Last year 100 percent of African American graduated.

Superintendent Matt Utterback is proud of the improvement, but cautioned attendees at a Friday conference session on social and emotional learning, school climate and student agency that statistics do not provide a full picture.

“Dashboards look at attendance, behavior and academics are frequent measures,” said Utterback, but the measures of a school climate survey focus on how students feel about their school experience. In the case of African American graduates, the school district recognized the district had put obstacles in their way.

“Equity has to come from all voices,” he added.

For years, North Clackamas has worked on improving equity in the 17,000-student district, where 60 percent of the population is white. Shelley Reggiani, executive director of equity and instructional services, is the advocate for students whose voices are not heard.

School climate surveys measure the total picture of school climate, not individual responses said Michael Lewis, director of student services and special education for Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Unified School District in New York. Anonymity is essential for full disclosure.

Existing survey findings did not provide the level of detail these districts needed for special groups of students in both districts. When some state money became available, Utterback applied for state money to pursue SEL data because the experience of students, not just the outcome (graduation) was important. Lewis received approval to use an outside agency for SEL research when he pointed out that the district lacked any data on social-emotional learning.

There was an “ouch” factor when Reggiani read the results. Changing the culture of a school district is hard and some staff perceived that things were going well when students had different perceptions. The survey company had warned her that teachers may dismiss results. But she said, “You don’t want to be the district where students graduate in spite of the district.”

The results showed vulnerabilities with African Americans in both districts. Lewis indicated that the Western New York school district’s data showed students of color were disproportionately suspended. To address the issue, he changed the job description of a counselor so the person could act as an alternative suspension specialist. The specialist held four forums with parents and four with students his attention has brought rates down dramatically.

In North Clackamas, survey findings showed African American girls in high school were doing poorly in math, which was troubling because in elementary school their performance was satisfactory. The district acted swiftly so teachers could make use of the months before summer vacation. Another finding showed African American boys at a middle school had comments that were “alarming,” The principal gathered a large group of African American boys, admitted he was messing up and has met with these boys for the past two years.

Districts will find advantages of working with an outside firm. Questions could be tailored and the turnaround time on results was two weeks, providing them to act quickly.  North Clackamas will now pursue surveys of the community and parents.

In both school districts, SEL survey results directed budget priorities. Vulnerable students whose voices are not typically addressed — students of color, students who identify as nonconforming by gender or sexuality, those who are poor, students in special education and English language learners and the sizable population of former ELLs — received more funding.

(Liz Griffin is senior reporter for Conference Daily Online and managing editor of School Administrator.)

Share this story