When the Hartford Board of Education sat down this Tuesday, March 5th, to conduct a special meeting they planned on spending most of their time discussing the contract approval of Parent Academy, an initiative committed to improving Hartford’s communities. The meeting was considered special because it was held in addition to the Board’s monthly meetings, primarily to discuss Parent Academy. However, roughly fifteen minutes after the event commenced at Hartford’s Public High School, it was clear that the Board had additional serious issues to address.
According to a new survey developed by the American Institute of Research and administered in HPS by “Achieve Hartford!”, the social climate amongst Hartford Schools was something that deserved attention. The study, in it’s second year, was reporting annual findings. While parents and school administrators believe that school climate has improved over the last year, the Board found the students perception of school climate to be unsettling. In comparison to the 2012 survey, peer climate Board member Richard Wareing, who was visibly upset over the reports findings, immediately asked the Achieve Hartford! team, “Why do so many youngsters feel that school is not a good place to be?” No one in the school’s packed library had an answer.
Although many questions over school safety remained unanswered during the meeting, one thing that all the board members could agree on was the obvious disconnect between student and adults’ perceptions on school safety. There were two categories designed to measure the social climate, peer climate and respectful climate. Peer climate referred to the students’ perception of their day-to-day interactions amongst each other, while respectful climate was through the eyes of the adults (staff and parents). One specific example came from surveys covering grades 3-5. It was found that 43% of students saw an improvement in peer climate, a 4% increase since 2012. At the same time 82% of adults saw interactions amongst students to have improved, a 6% increase since last year. A 2% difference may not initially seem significant, but if that trend increases for a period as short as 5 years, a 10% disparity between the actual social climate and perceived social climate will have emerged.
In discussing possible explanations for the differing views of students and adults, Board member Richard Wareing offered, “In terms of school safety, the data suggests that the further you get away from the hallways, the better it looks. I’m curious to see what the adults are basing their perception on.” But that wasn’t the only thing the board was curious about; they also wanted an explanation for inflated percentages of survey participation in several public schools throughout the state.
While no one completely undermined the contributions of Achieve Hartford! in their quest to restore the Hartford Public system to health, several questions were raised over the validity of the surveys they conducted. Several Board members agreed to one glaring weakness of the surveys: inaccurate participation rates. For example, Achieve Hartford! reported that Hooker Environmental Sciences Magnet school’s 3-4 grade participation percentage was raised ten points, from 96 to 106 percent. But how is that possible? Chairman of the Board, Matthew Poland, wanted to know how 106 percent of the student body could have participated in the survey? In their response to the Chairmen’s concern over the legitimacy of the study, the Achieve Hartford! team suggested that the inflated participation rates were due in part to both unfinished and retaken surveys, a flaw resulting from keeping the surveys so anonymous.
Many students, parents, and media members appeared engaged by the presentation. This second adaption of the American Institute of Research’s study, despite some flaws, was one that under correct guidance, had potential to become a powerful tool in the belt of Hartford educational reformers. Board Chairman Matthew Poland described the study as, “a very telling one, and it tells that work has to be done to understand what is happening within our hallways and why it isn’t a good place to be with your peers.” Members of Achieve Hartford! demonstrated how it can be used by a high school senate to dig deeper into the climate of a given school by placing reason to the alleged findings. The team continued to say that the ultimate mission of the survey would be to illustrate how parent involvement has increased as a means of engagement rather than through their perceptions. “Almost in the sense of customer satisfaction,” added one member. Although the findings of the survey produced many different reactions amongst the board members and the community, all the participants of the meeting walked away with the shared enthusiasm that through the involvement of Achieve Hartford!, the Hartford Public School system can and will develop better relations amongst the networks of students, parents, and teachers- it’s just a matter of time.