Student survey shows slight improvement

There's still 'work to do,' WSESD consultant says

BRATTLEBORO — Results of the fall school climate survey show some areas of school life have improved slightly since spring 2022.

On Feb. 28, Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) school board directors heard an initial presentation and summary of results based on a survey from Panorama Education, which offers the assessing tool “to improve educational outcomes with a holistic view of student data.”

Presenter Dr. Chris Overtree, a psychologist hired by the District in February 2022 to help with the process, said before the meeting that results “are based on the district's own standard practice of administering climate surveys every year, which, before Panorama, consisted of questions supported, authored, and tracked by the district.”

“Had WSESD not already been using this well-validated instrument as part of their standard practices, I would have recommended they commence doing so, and would have done so as part of my climate assessment,” Overtree told The Commons.

“As it stands,” he added, “the district is in an excellent position to work with me in partnership to make data-based decisions about strategies to improve climate. We have not had to add additional burden to the district, short of making time for me to visit with school personnel, students, and conduct secondary analysis of the data.”

Overtree said much of the work to date has “revolved around working with school personnel to establish and enhance best practices using yearly climate data to inform local, school-based initiatives.”

The psychologist said he is working with the district to “solidify the continuity and sustainability” of those practices “in an environment that is seeing labor shortages and significant turnover.”

Leveraging the data-gathering process to strengthen school climate by enhancing “we-want-to-know-how-you-feel-about-your-school” messaging is also key, Overtree said.

The results

The written summary is divided into responses from 470 students in grades 3-5 and 975 in grades 6-12. It includes questions regarding school climate and a sense of belonging, as well as a section of custom-crafted questions.

In it, Overtree wrote, “school climate problems usually reflect those in our society and our communities […] except in extreme circumstances, school climate problems are not caused by our schools or children.”

At the meeting, he clarified somewhat that the results here are similar to those he's seeing “across the country” and that issues are dependent on the “types of supports students are receiving post-pandemic.”

He also noted that nationally, scores are “always lower for the higher grades.”

“We are looking to create long-term, sustainable trends and to catch negative trends before they become larger trends,” he said, adding that incremental improvement is also a trend, so much so that he is “considering recommending doing Panorama once a year since the changes are moving slowly.”

Overtree, who teaches at the Umass Amherst School of Education and has been a specialist in school climate assessment since 2002, said “amazing work is happening in your district,” later adding “you are already doing good work to try to turn data into action. You're doing well compared to a lot of districts I've worked with in other states.”

Results show “overall favorable percentage responses are lower than we would like for several questions. We have work to do with respect to student engagement and sense of belonging.”

Overall responses in the higher grades are deemed “much lower than we would like for most questions. We have work to do in the upper grades with respect to student engagement and sense of belonging.”

It was also noted that the district is “not seeing large differences in responses when disaggregating by race/ethnicity; the largest variance here regards the sense of belonging.

Finally, results show that student-to-student interactions - those related to respect and impact on learning, for instance - “seem to be having a greater negative impact than interactions with adults.”

Looking ahead

During the meeting Superintendent Mark Speno noted plans to continue to work with Overtree this spring, although no vote has been taken to extend his one-year contract.

Another survey presentation is planned for the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union board in June to share new, spring data and goals for the beginning of the September 2023 school year.

In the current assessment, actions being taken now at the K-8 level include:

• Individual schools working on school-wide strategies to handle how they teach about behavior expectations, deal with issues of social equity and justice, and more;

• Multi-age collaboration and school-wide initiatives such as buddies and morning meetings;

• Implementing collective authorship for behavioral expectations across settings such as lunch and recess;

• Student leadership teams working to design activities related to restorative practices, expectations, and more;

• Sending representatives to the grades 6-8 Landmark College student leadership conference;

• School-wide programming for activities such as dances, outdoor enrichment, etc.

Ongoing initiatives being implemented at the high school level include:

• The Student Advisory Council, which will lead a professional development offering about student engagement and communication;

• ACE time devoted to student-led school improvement projects;

• Strategies in the works to help students communicate effectively about their needs as “people and learners”;

• A two-credit course supporting students who need addiction help;

• Working to ensure students have access to at least one trusted adult they are comfortable asking for help;

• Increasing the number of building staff members trained in trauma-informed practices.

Overtree called the WSESD “a district of schools in motion,” adding that is when school climate improvement happens.

Response and request for a written report

Following the presentation, Board Clerk Tim Maciel, calling the survey “so important,” said it was unfortunate that board members had received the report just a day before the presentation and were discussing it midway through a packed agenda.

He asked for a written report, and others, including representative Lana Dever, agreed.

“Not only is this important information that the community should be able to weigh in on, but we spent a fair amount of money for it,” she said.

To date, the district has paid Overtree $34,575: $18,260 in the 2021–22 fiscal year, and $16,325 to date in 2022–23.

“We're asking for a report that we've already paid for, more or less,” added board Clerk Anne Beekman when asked if a vote were needed to ask for a written report.

Overtree said he would be happy to comply but that the board might want to define the parameters of his report, including determining its goals, whether they would want recommendations from him, and whether they would want him to highlight differences among schools - information not present in the summary.

Chair Kelly Young suggested that Overtree send board members an email with points to consider they want to have in his written report so they can discuss them at the next meeting.

Former board Chair David Schoales said several board members have been meeting with Overtree all year and encourages “putting together another non-quorum group” to go over what might be in the written report.

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