State’s new school climate rating system aimed at reducing bullying

Teachers and principals across Georgia are beefing up anti-bullying efforts to get ready for a first-of-its-kind rating system that attempts to measure a school’s atmosphere.

The state’s new School Climate Star Rating is part of an effort to hold Georgia schools accountable not just for academic achievements but for the feel of a school. Decreasing bullying, disciplinary problems and dropout rates are key.

“School climate is so important … to attendance and achievement that it just can’t be ignored anymore,” said Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of policy for the state DOE. “Bullying is a symptom of something that’s going on in the school and, unless a school changes the climate, they’re going to have periodic episodes and incidences such as bullying.”

Under the new rating system – among the first of its kind in the country — schools can receive up to five stars. A lower number of stars means schools need to work on improving school climate. Besides surveying teachers, students and parents, state education officials also will look at a school’s attendance rate and disciplinary actions in determining the climate rating. The ratings for Georgia schools are expected to be released by the end of the year, McGiboney said.

State education officials say the climate rating is not meant to be punitive; schools will not lose funding or be penalized for poor climate ratings. Rather, the ratings are intended to highlight areas where schools need to improve. Parents will have access to the rating system and can question schools about the scores.

School climate refers to factors that contribute to whether students have positive feelings about their school, such as relationships between students, teachers and staff; teaching and learning practices; the physical appearance of the school; and the ratio of students to teachers in classrooms.

Anti-bullying advocates agree with state leaders that how bullying is dealt with remains key among the issues that contribute to a positive school climate.

“The fact is kids don’t learn as well when they’re in a state of fear,” said Patti Agatston, counselor and prevention specialist with Cobb County school district. “It actually can improve their academics when they feel they’re in a …welcoming school.”

Agatston, who also advises other Georgia schools on best ways to handle bullying, says schools have increased efforts to prevent bullying in light of national high-profile cases involving bullied students who committed suicide.

In Georgia, state law defines bullying as written, verbal or physical acts that “a reasonable person” would see as intended to threaten, harass or intimidate. The behavior must be persistent or pervasive.

Georgia DOE statistics show a decline in the number of bullying incidents from the 2011-12 school year to the next year in Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett counties. The number of incidents increased in Atlanta, Cobb and Fulton counties. A handful of parents who say their children were bullied have filed lawsuits alleging educators did not do enough to address the issue.

Over the past year or so, Ridgeview Charter middle school has increased efforts to prevent bullying. Students last spring signed resolutions pledging not to bully and to stand up for bullying victims. In addition, PTA leaders in March hosted at the school a viewing of the documentary “Submit,” which highlights the issue of cyber-bullying.

“Everyone has seen instances of what bullying can do and how dangerous it is,” said 14-year-old Sonya Reznikova, SGA president at Ridgeview. “So everyone at Ridgeview… agrees that it’s a huge issue that has to be … contained now.”

To improve school climate, the state DOE recommends schools implement a strategy called “positive behavioral interventions and supports.” The aim is for educators to focus on and reward students for positive behavior in the classroom, which can lead to less disciplinary action and other negative responses, state officials say.

“When a child is praised for positive behavior that tends to change the way they act because they want to please you,” said DOE spokesman Matt Cardoza. “It’s a proactive approach rather than dealing with the issue after something’s happened. You’re hoping you’re going to change behavior.”

Holli Levinson, education director with the Anti-Defamation League for the Southeast, which works with some 150 schools in Georgia to decrease bullying, said the state’s new climate rating system is a move in the right direction cautions schools should not feel like they’ll be punished or stigmatized for reporting bullying.

“We need to think about social and emotional learning, not just academic performance on tests,” Levinson said. “There is a direct link between school climate and academic performance.”

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