Lower ‘climate’ rating for some schools doesn’t tell whole story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an online database to look up each school’s climate rating. Go to http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-education/interactive-georgia-2015-school-climate-ratings/nrX76/

What is school climate and how does it work?

Georgia began assessing school climate after state lawmakers passed legislation in 2012 ordering a rating system in response to concerns about bullying and classroom disciplinary issues. The ratings are on a 1 (unsatisfactory) to 5 (excellent) scale.

Officials use four criteria to determine the ratings: student disciplinary records; surveys filled out by parents, students and faculty; school discipline incidents and student attendance records.

In 2013-14, the ratings’ first year, 334 schools received an excellent rating. That dropped to 259 in 2014-15.

Laura Gallagher asked her son, David, a rising eighth-grader at Gwinnett Online Campus, if he feels safe at school.

“Yeah,” said David, who took a momentary break from playing a video game to answer the question.

At first glance, a state report on schools' "climate" released last week could challenge such confidence, but its findings are raising more questions than answers for some parents.

The rating for many schools plunged, not mainly because of violence or discipline problems, but because not enough people filled out a survey form.

Gwinnett Online Campus, where students take most of their classes remotely, was one of 15 schools statewide that dropped from an “excellent” rating for the 2013-14 school year to “unsatisfactory,” for 2014-15. The ratings are intended to measure how safe each school’s learning environment is, based on disciplinary data, attendance records, parent, student and faculty surveys and other information. The change for schools like Gwinnett Online Campus illustrates one difficulty of measuring something intangible such as a school’s atmosphere.

Many of the 15 schools had few disciplinary issues. Eight of them, including Gwinnett Online Campus, had taken either one or no disciplinary actions for fighting during the 2014-15 school year, state records show. Six had taken no disciplinary actions for disorderly conduct, although there were nearly 125,000 such actions statewide.

“I feel it’s a safe and secure environment,” said Hope Campbell, who teaches at Gwinnett Online Campus, in Lawrenceville, and has a daughter, Christa Beth, who attends the school.

Several schools called the state with questions about their low scores. State Department of Education Deputy Superintendent Garry McGiboney said he explained that their ratings dropped primarily because of low survey participation. About 4 of 5 students and school personnel filled out the surveys, which comprise 25 percent of the school climate score. State officials said some schools had no responses in some areas.

State education officials defended the ratings. In addition to low survey participation rates, several schools had abnormally high percentages of students who missed too many days of schools, which also counts for 25 percent of the score. A few, officials said, had more trouble with bullying.

“We feel pretty good about the ratings,” said McGiboney, who oversees much of the department’s work on disciplinary and school climate issues.

The ratings are important, state officials say. Education leaders in much of Georgia, and throughout the nation, have placed greater emphasis on school climate and disciplinary issues in recent years, citing a correlation between a good classroom environment and good grades. McGiboney said Georgia schools that received an excellent school climate rating on average scored 20 points higher on the state’s College and Career Ready Performance Index, an annual report card on a school’s academic performance, than schools that received an unsatisfactory school climate rating.

“School climate is about making sure each student feels safe and nurtured,” said Peter DeWitt, a former teacher and principal who is now an education consultant with expertise in school climate issues. “When they are feeling safe and nurtured, they’re more engaged in the learning process.”

Georgia is one of several states that tracks disciplinary data, DeWitt said. Few, though, rate the climate of each school.

Respondents to Georgia’s survey are asked how much they believe “school is a place at which I feel safe” or “teachers at my school set clear rules for behavior” or “my child knows what to do in case of a school emergency.”

Gwinnett Online Campus principal Christopher Ray said staffers didn’t fill out the surveys for the 2014-15 school year after completing them the prior school year. Ray said he’s working with state officials on different ways to capture school climate on campuses like his, since most students aren’t on campus every day.

“A lot of times, it’s a square peg, round hole situation, and we’re trying to make it fit,” he said.

Gallagher, the parent who believes Gwinnett Online Campus fosters a safe learning environment, urged caution about survey results.

“You’re either real happy (with the school) or you have an ax to grind,” she said.