Battling the ‘creepy clown’ frenzy in schools

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It sounds like the plot of a B-rated horror movie.

In the run up to Halloween, people dressed as creepy clowns stalk small-town streets and threaten children and families. Schools receive online threats of violence from people purporting to be clowns. And police work to tamp down the frenzy before it envelopes their worried community.

Except, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you know this isn’t a movie. It’s happening.

Since August, when the first clown sightings were reported in South Carolina, there have been more than 100 clown sightings or threats made by people dressed as clowns across the United States. The offbeat social news site Atlas Obscura made an interactive map to track the phenomena in real time. Really.

Recent reports have spread beyond the United States to Canada and Europe.

While the vast majority of clown-related threats have been exposed as hoaxes, people dressed as clowns have been captured on video stalking houses and cemeteries and several arrests have been made for direct threats against citizens and schools, according to NBC News.

As absurd and not funny as this all seems, schools throughout the country are working to keep students protected from threats, both real and perceived.

The creepy clown epidemic makes for a good headline—and some people might think it’s overblown. But the attention presents a great opportunity to evaluate student and campus security. Here’s three things every school leader should do to keep students and teachers safe from outside threats.

Take threats seriously
No matter if it’s a student prank or something worse, assume every threat is real until proven otherwise.

Instances of clown threats against schools have run the gamut from texts to phone calls to social media posts.

Others instances have been more sinister.

Esquire reports that an Ohio woman was grabbed on her porch by a man in a clown costume. The man told the woman that attacks on local schools were imminent. Schools were closed the next day as a precaution.

Schools who’ve dealt with the phenomenon have had to walk a fine line between overblowing what might seem to some like a childish prank and seriously vetting potentially serious credible threats.

At Manassas City Public Schools (MCPS) in Virginia, administrators recently fielded concerns from parents on both sides of the debate. Some felt the district was taking the threats too seriously. Others said they appreciated the district’s diligence in investigating and communicating about the problem.

“We thought it was better to err on the side of too much information,” Almeta Radford, director of public communications at MCPS told TrustED.

The district sent social media, phone, and email messages along with letters updating parents and students on the situation and the district’s actions moving forward.

When you face a potential threat, even if it sounds absurd, don’t rule out the possibility of school delays or closures. Make sure your community understands the threat, your rationale for closing your schools, and your plan for dealing with threats moving forward.

Support students and families
The creepy clown phenomenon plays on a real fear of many children (and adults).

In Manassas City, Radford tells TrustED, “Students were coming in very anxious from middle school and down. There was a lot of anxiety with the students.”

When facing a potential threat in your schools, do you provide counseling and psychological support for students and staff?

Can you identify ways to use thwarted pranks and headline news stories as teachable moments?

Sarasota County School District in Florida recently offered counseling opportunities for all students after a series of prank clown threats against local schools there.

“We were trying to assure parents that there was no real threat from the clown issue that’s been happening,” district communications specialist Scott Ferguson told Your Observer. “We just wanted them to talk to their students and say that what kids do on social media does matter.”

Prevent frenzy through engagement
With so many clown sightings throughout the country, districts are looking for ways to prevent unnecessary panic.

Nothing stirs a frenzy like poor communication.

Before, during, and after these incidents, make sure your community understands your planning and what steps you are taking to improve safety and satisfy public concern.

Let community members vent if they need to and provide feedback on your approach. Stomp out unsubstantiated rumors on social media and elsewhere by keeping community members informed and engaged.

Have you dealt with creepy clown threats in your schools this fall? Share your stories in the comments.

Don’t let pranks turn into controversies. Here’s one way to help encourage authentic two-way communication in your schools.

The link between school climate and bullying

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Every school leader knows how detrimental bullying is to the learning environment.

Emotive conversations on social media and in our classrooms are clear evidence that awareness campaigns, such as National Bullying Prevention Month (happening now), are vital to efforts to make schools safer and stronger.

When a student is harassed or belittled, be it in school or online, that abuse not only affects their personal outlook, it also often impacts the climate of the entire school or school district.

Often a poor school environment becomes a breeding ground for bullying and other safety and discipline challenges.

The key to making schools safer, starts with empowering students to embrace a strong sense of personal identity, posits Becki Cohn-Vargas, director of the anti-bullying group Not In Our Schools, in Edutopia.

Cohn-Vargas recommends creating an identity safe environment for students—basically, a place where all students feel welcomed and empowered to engage in learning and social activities in schools, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

It sounds like common sense. But the reality in a lot of schools is that students do not feel empowered, whether out of fear or some other reason.

Several school districts have great systems for dealing with bullying incidents once they’ve happened. The difference is that an identity-safe approach helps prevent incidents from even starting, writes Cohn-Vargas:

If bullying is handled only at the disciplinary level, underlying biases and attitudes about the kids who are perceived as different persist. Getting to a deeper level that truly leads to change goes beyond a bullying assembly, specific lessons, or disciplinary practices in response to bullying. It requires looking at the whole school environment.

So how do you transform your school into one that fosters inclusion and empowers personal identity?

Cohn-Vargas outlines four tips to transform your school climate to prevent bullying before it starts:

Make identity safety part of your curriculum
Encouraging inclusion should be an integral part of your educational philosophy.

“Foster identity safety in an environment of respect, empathy, and kindness by modeling it all day long through classroom and school-wide learning activities,” writes Cohn-Vargas.

This goes well beyond the occasional student assembly or guidance meeting. Schools need to engage students every day through revamped lesson plans, and collaborative decision-making. Faculty need to be specially trained and encouraged to foster that engagement.

Talk about the issues that divide students
No one likes a controversy, and tackling the hairy issue of student identity does not always make for an easy conversation. But real talk is the only way to root out the underlying issues that allow bullying and other forms of abuse to fester.

When students understand the experiences and struggles of their classmates, they’re much more likely to show empathy, says Cohn-Vargas.

Go beyond simple discipline
There will always be bullies in schools.

Your goal should be to discourage abusive behavior, to root it out, and teach against it.

What support do you provide students after they’ve been bullied? What kind of interventions besides punishment do you offer to bullies? Do you engage these students  in discussions about bad behavior and choices in school? Do you have any program to help students report and advocate against bullying or abusive behavior in school or online?

If you answered no to any of these questions, it’s time to rethink your approach.

Empower student voice
A positive school culture is a tough match for most bullies.

Giving students a platform to express themselves and their concerns encourages them to take ownership of their educations, inspires them to engage in school-related discussions, and equips them to stand up to bullying when it happens to them or to their friends.

How do you encourage students to express their identity and engage in school decision-making? Tell us in the comments.

Looking for ways to assess your school climate and make sure it’s working for everyone?  Don’t miss tomorrow’s webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality. Space is limited, so sign up now!

Room for improvement: High-performing schools can do better

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“Nobody’s perfect.” Cliché? Yes. True? Also, yes.

 Need proof? Look no farther than America’s public schools.

New analytics and specialized data enable educators to more easily track where our school districts are excelling—and where they still need work.

Even the best-performing schools have their share of poor-performing students.

Enter the turnaround schools model, a progressive approach to resource allocation and education funding that focuses education investment on targeted areas of weakness, as opposed to across-the-board spending.

Every school, no matter its graduation rate or average test score, has groups of students who require special attention. In high-performing schools, it’s often easy for these students to get overlooked. The challenge is to identify those students and develop strategies for pulling them up, as this article in Education Week explains.

While no one strategy will work for every district, the article outlines some areas where high-performing school districts should consider focusing their attention. Here are three that stand out:

School leadership
New learning strategies only work provided you first identify the problem.

This can prove difficult, especially when a school performs well on holistic indicators, such as graduation or class attendance.

The federal Every Student Achieves Act (ESSA) focuses heavily on using aggregated data to recognize subgroups of students who are underperforming, as Education Week points out.

The idea: to close achievement gaps along socio-economic lines in all schools, rather than focus solely on under-performing schools.

With new definitions of school and student success and better access to data, it’s up to school and district leaders to identify those students who need help and provide solutions to effectively level the academic playing field.

Instructional transformation
Schools that are most successful at closing achievement gaps customize teaching approaches for struggling students.

Case in point: When Brimhall Elementary School outside Minneapolis set out to tackle its widening achievement gap, principal Penny Bidne and her staff knew they had to rethink their instructional approach.

“We put our heads together,” Bidne told Education Week, “and we really work hard at figuring things out and what we need to have in place for all of our students to be achievers.”

That included the development of grade-level staff teams who discuss specific student performance and new ways to engage struggling students. The school also instituted small-group instruction to give struggling students more focused attention. And it implemented a 1-to-1 instructional program for students falling behind in reading.

So far, those efforts are paying off. In four short years, the school has been designated a “reward school” for the progress it has made to close the achievement gap in Minnesota.

Culture shift
Closing student achievement gaps requires more than new program and initiatives. In many high-performing schools, it requires a culture shift.

High-performing schools get used to trumpeting success. That’s good. But it doesn’t preclude them from also admitting weaknesses.

The worst mistake a strong school can make is to overlook or undervalue vital support and resources that lagging students need to succeed.

Peers and parents can play a vital role in this change.

For example, as Education Week reports, Brimhall Elementary implemented a buddy system that empowers successful students to help their struggling peers.

School leadership also held fairs that encouraged student achievement as well as parent nights to make sure parents were equipped to aid their children at home.

Note: Parent and student engagement is vital to the type of student turnarounds we’re talking about here.

Does your school or district provide different ways for struggling students and their families to reach out in search of help when and where they need it? Giving students and parents a voice will help you identify weak spots early and prescribe interventions before students fall off the pace.

Do you work in a high-performing school or district? What approaches do you take to encourage student improvement? Tell us in the comments. Want to give students and parents a way to help you identify and close weak spots in your schools? Start by asking for their feedback.

5 steps to achieve stronger school climate

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By now, you understand how vital a positive school climate is to school success.

Throughout this week’s special series on climate, we’ve discussed the role that school climate plays in encouraging student achievement and we’ve offered up some suggestions for how to effectively assess perceptions in your school community.

But how do we take what we know about school climate and use it to affect concrete, long-lasting change in schools?

It’s important to understand that improvements in school climate or public perception don’t happen overnight.

Effective change requires a change in attitude, a commitment to community engagement, and careful strategic planning and execution.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of new policies and initiatives, especially as new rules and regulations from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act begin to take shape in your schools, you’re not alone.

School climate has become such an important issue in schools that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released a guide to help.

“Research shows that when schools and districts effectively focus on improving school climate, students are more likely to engage in the curriculum, achieve academically, and develop positive relationships,” the authors write.

ED’s Quick Guide on Making School Climate Improvements outlines 5 steps school districts can take to improve the climate in their schools:

1. Create a comprehensive plan of action
Before jumping into anything, create a timeline and strategy for tackling your school climate issues. This includes forming a dedicated team to lead those efforts. It also means thinking through what resources are required to effectively gather data and engage and inform your school community.

Speaking of engagement—it’s important to draft a comprehensive communications plan to ensure your community understands your goals and how their participation can help.

Whenever possible, make sure to align any new school climate initiatives with ongoing strategic school improvement planning measures.

2. Engage stakeholders
No school improvements stick without buy-in from the community.

Invite students, parents, and staff to weigh in on your strategy ahead of time. Kick off a running dialogue between your community and your school district. Do this both in person and online.

Help your community understand your information-gathering process and provide training, so that school leaders can use the data and information collected during school climate surveys to make meaningful change.

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to partner with community members and outside organizations to help power your reform efforts.

3. Effectively collect data
How you choose to collect data is as important as the data you collect.

Will you use a survey or focus groups to understand community concerns about school climate? Or, do you have other means of collecting candid feedback from your school community? Maybe a combination of all of the above?

Whatever your approach, make sure you’ve thought through the data-collection process to ensure you’re asking the right questions—and getting reliable answers.

Analyze that data and use it to create a clear plan of action, or to otherwise inform ongoing strategic initiatives. Let your community see and comment on the findings

4. Set your strategy
You have data and input from your school community. Now, it’s time to develop interventions that lead to lasting change.

Review all current and past reform efforts. For example, did your last teacher training program improve student attitudes? Was that the goal? If so, you might choose to continue that work. If not, the data might be telling you to try something new.

Decide what’s possible. Then, with input from your school community, develop next steps to turn your plans into a reality.

5. Evaluate your progress
Don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s important to understand that not every action you take will lead to a stronger school climate—not right away.

That’s why you need to constantly assess your progress.

This means having a community-wide dialogue about school climate and constantly gathering new data.

Have you implemented strategies for achieving stronger school climate in your schools? How’s it going so far?  Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas for how to assess school climate in your district? Join us for our upcoming webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality, Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

You can’t buy good school climate

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“She’s a smart kid, if only she’d apply herself more…” Sound familiar?

You’ve no doubt uttered this well-worn phrase at some point in your career. Few things are more frustrating than wasted student potential.

But students aren’t the only known squanderers of opportunity; schools have this problem too.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that quality environments (aka schools) are as integral to student success as the desire to learn.

Unfortunately, as educator Jim Bellanca posits for the Solution Tree blog, many schools don’t fully understand the role of climate, particularly the importance of trust and familiarity, in the success paradigm.

Making climate matter
Turns out, the term climate is an apt way of describing the culture and environment of a school.

When students feel unsafe or disconnected from their teachers and other students, their school environment becomes “toxic,” writes Bellanca. Neuroscientists have done some digging into this, he says. What they found was essentially this: Toxicity pollutes students’ learning and negatively affects their success.

On the other hand, schools that promote a positive climate, often through better parent, student, and teacher engagement, display such qualities as creativity, innovative learning, and increased academic success and happiness.

Translation: How students perceive their schools goes a long way toward how they perceive themselves—and, by extension, their potential.

Time for an attitude check?
It might be tempting to think: “I don’t have to worry about school climate. We have new facilities, the latest security technology, and a healthy budget to spend.”

But money can’t buy everything, writes Bellanca.

Facility safety and strategic learning design can contribute to a positive school environment. But no amount of money can counteract negative staff attitudes or limiting teaching strategies or methods.

To prove this point, Bellanca and a team of researchers recently analyzed the results of student surveys from two schools, both of which enroll students of similar economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.

One school was deemed to have a toxic climate via student feedback; the other was deemed to have a positive, healthy one.

“With all other things equal, the positive, healthy climate allowed teachers and students to wade into the deepest learning waters and enjoy the fruits of instructional practices, which evidence tells us get the most powerful results,” Bellanca says.

The biggest difference between these schools? Simple, says Bellanca: attitude.

After analyzing the curricula and lesson plans of school districts with both negative and positive school climates, several patterns emerged.

For example, schools with negative climates over-emphasized memorization and test-taking. Schools with healthy climates emphasized problem-solving and investigation. Schools with negative climates relied primarily on traditional teaching methods, such as lectures. Schools with positive climates tended to promote collaboration and choice.

Make no mistake: Modern learning facilities and new technology can contribute to a positive school climate, assuming those resources are used the right way and with the right intentions. But the attitudes and perceptions of teachers and parents and students matter just as much, if not more.

That’s why it’s so important to ask your community what it thinks about your schools before you start writing checks. Here’s one way to start that conversation.

For more on the link between school climate and student success, don’t miss our webinar Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality , Oct. 12. Space is limited, so sign up now!

States keep their eyes on school climate

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It’s hard to believe, but 2017 is fast approaching.

In the waning months of 2016, states and districts are working hard to develop plans for evaluating school performance under the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA).

ESSA rethinks how schools are assessed. While the law’s predecessor, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), depended almost solely on standardized tests to measure school success, ESSA seeks a broader, more flexible system.

Schools will now be held responsible not only for how well their students do on tests, but also for the learning environments they offer.

As states and schools decide what non-academic factors they’ll use in their school accountability plans—school climate is just one option—they’ll also have to decide how to measure them.

Several states are experimenting with good, old-fashioned observation—what they call school inspections—to evaluate school climate and environment, as a recent article in Ed Week outlined.

Observation and feedback
Modeled after school assessment in England and other countries, the school inspection approach invites a group of educators or education experts to observe a school’s climate, culture, and engagement, and provide feedback to teachers and leadership.

The goal is to go beyond blind data—and get a real sense of how a school functions.

“It felt very personalized,” Emilie Knisley, superintendent of Blue Mountain School District in Vermont told Ed Week. “It felt like you could take the recommendations and take action on them in a way that you can’t when you’re just getting a set of test scores.”

As Ed Week points out, Knisley not only received feedback, but also observed another Vermont school district as part of the state’s pilot program.

While on the surface it may seem invasive, Knisley and other school leaders said allowing outside observers to take an unbiased look at their schools helped them see opportunities for improvement that they had overlooked. And the observations have encouraged leaders from different districts to share their successful approaches to common problems.

Measuring school climate
School inspections are not designed specifically to measure school climate, but they may prove to be a great way to assess an area of school performance that is not easily measured.

While the National School Climate Center acknowledges there is no consensus on how to measure school climate, it breaks down what the assessment should measure into four broad categories:

  • Safety
  • Relationships
  • Teaching and learning
  • External environment

It’s impossible to identify a single set of data that will accurately measure a school’s climate. That’s why states and schools that want to use school climate as a non-academic accountability measure under ESSA need to develop a comprehensive strategy.

School inspections are one approach.

But school climate shouldn’t be assessed without input from staff members, parents, and students.

Engaging your community through school surveys, focus groups, and other methods will help ensure your community’s voice is included in whatever assessment you do.

Make sure to check back tomorrow as we continue to explore school climate issues and ways districts can evaluate their school environments.

And don’t miss our webinar “Making Feedback Matter: How School Climate Affects School Quality” on October 12.  We’ll explore the link between school climate and student success, and the best ways to measure them. Space is limited, so sign up now!