Battling the ‘creepy clown’ frenzy in schools

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

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.

Room for improvement: High-performing schools can do better

NOTE: You can also find this article on our new and improved blog, TrustED. You’ll get the same great content and more in an all-new, easy-to-navigate format. TrustED: News and solutions school leaders can actually use.

“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.

Rethinking school anti-bullying campaigns

Did you notice a sea of blue shirts roaming your hallways this morning?

Today is Blue Shirt Day® World Day of Bullying Prevention™, STOMP Out Bullying’s international day for recognizing, addressing, and preventing bullying.

Maybe you organized full-fledged Blue Shirt Day rallies or contests in your schools. Maybe you initiated candid discussions about why bullying occurs in your school.

Whatever your approach, today is a time to reflect on an issue plaguing nearly one in three American school children. It’s also a time to develop solutions.

If you’re looking for ideas, a recent study from researchers at Princeton, Yale, and Rutgers sheds new light on the anatomy of bullying, as a recent Ed Week article outlines.

The main takeaway? Peer pressure helps prevent the phenomenon as much as it causes it.

Identifying the influencers
In a survey of more than 24,000 middle schoolers, researchers found that the most influential students were not necessarily the traditional “popular” kids.

“Adult-identified leaders are often very different from student-identified leaders,” Hana Shepherd, an assistant sociology professor at Rutgers University, told Ed Week. “Adults look at traditionally defined ‘popular’ kids, the ‘good’ kids, while kids who are leaders of smaller groups might not be on the social radar of adults, but often are [influential] too.”

The research also attributed bullying to a culture of retribution and harassment among the majority of students in a school, rather than just isolated instances by stereotypical “bad apples.”

But researchers warn that this reframing of bullying—and the social roles of students—may render traditional anti-bullying tactics ineffective.

Spreading the roots
Researchers used the survey results to map the social networks of the students in each school, identifying students who had influence across several peer groups.

Half of these so-called “seed” students were then invited to discuss the causes of bullying and ways to prevent it.

The Roots program, as the researchers named it, allows influential students to engage one another in an open, honest dialogue—not about bullying specifically, but about ways to reduce general conflict or “drama” in their schools.

Students then worked on their own creative projects to influence their peers. Those projects included creating positive, anti-bullying GIFs and developing reward systems for students who reduced conflict in their classrooms.

“We treated students as politicians, campaigning for a better school,” researcher Elizabeth L. Paluck told Ed Week. “The theory was that their public behaviors and statements could change norms.”

And the effort appears to have worked.

In schools with the Roots program, disciplinary incidents fell by nearly 20 percent. In schools where at least one-fifth of influential students participated in the program, reports of discipline issues decreased by 60 percent.

Re-thinking your approach
The results of the Roots program suggest that traditional anti-bullying programs may be outdated in this time of shifting social norms and communication methods.

If you’re planning a new program to combat harassment, consider digging deeper into your school’s social networks to identify the real student influencers. And make sure you keep student engagement at the heart of everything you do.

Today isn’t only Blue Shirt Day®, it’s also the kickoff to anti-bullying month nationwide. Throughout October, we’ll continue to touch on important bullying issues facing schools.

And keep an eye out for our guide for school leaders on bullying prevention.

How poor schools use community engagement to close the achievement gap

Think your school or district is up against it?

Take 30 seconds to read this recent Education Week article about Calcedeaver Elementary in Mount Vernon, Ala. (population: 2,000).

Nearly 90 percent of the school’s students live in poverty, are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and are Native American, an ethnic group that historically lags other ethnic groups when it comes to student performance.

Given these and other indicators, you might assume that the school is a low performer.

You’d be wrong—dead wrong, in fact. According to Education Week, nearly 90 percent of Calcedeaver students achieve “proficient” or “advanced” scores on state reading and math tests. The school was named a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

High achieving Calcedeaver graduates have matriculated to the local high school, where they continue to flourish. In the past 15 years, the local high school graduation rate jumped from 50 percent to 91 percent, reports Education Week.

School leaders have traced the success of this rare high-poverty, high-performance outlier to a single defining factor: a tight-knit, productive school-community relationship.

Rather than using its challenges as an excuse, Calcedeaver leverages its unique culture to encourage community participation and student success.

Educators are quick to point out there is no silver-bullet blueprint for success in high-poverty, high-performing schools. But there are a few strategies worth considering. Here’s a look at four that worked in Calcedeaver, via Education Week.

Embrace uniqueness
Calcedeaver celebrates its predominant Native American heritage.

In 2001, the school hired Nicole Williams, a former student, to teach Native American culture, language, dance, and history.

Williams has since become an example and mentor to many of the school’s students.

Williams graduated from Calcedeaver at a time when many of her classmates did not. So she understands the unique path that students in the community must take to achieve success.

For more on Williams and her mentorship, check out this video, courtesy of Education Week:

Involve your community
Whether you hail from a small town, such as Mount Vernon, or a large inner-city neighborhood, the link between community support and student and school success is rooted in common understanding.

Calcedeaver’s ability to embrace its traditional culture and heritage fueled a strong bond between the community and the school.

“This school is the heartbeat of this community,” Williams tells Education Week. “Everything else are the veins and the capillaries and all that. This is the main organ that supports this community, and they support us. It’s a perfect union.”

Principal Laura Hittson protects that union by inviting feedback from members of the school community on key decisions, and giving parents and others a say in the school’s future.

Leverage strategic partnerships
For a small, low-income school like Calcedeaver, going it alone wasn’t going to cut it.

The school’s leaders consistently look to government and business partners to support and underwrite new learning and teaching strategies.

Calcedeaver’s road to excellence kicked off in 2001 when the school joined the federal Reading First program and the Alabama Reading Initiative. Together, these programs—one federal, one state-based—infused much-needed resources and support.

Since then, Calcadeaver has worked with companies and local civic organizations to create STEM-based learning programs and other resource-intensive initiatives, finding ways to save on both time and money.

Establish common goals
At Calcedeaver, leaders and staff approach every new initiative with a student-first mindset, reports Education Week.

Every decision school leaders make has a clear purpose: to encourage student achievement and enrichment.

It’s with this understanding that the school often seeks feedback and advice from its community.

These are, of course, just a few ideas. How does your school or district engage its community to overcome funding or performance issues? Tell us in the comments.

Looking to unify your community around a common set of academic goals? Here’s one way to start that conversation.

Why your schools are losing market share

The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland has long been regarded by education experts as a national bellwether district.

Pundits and parents alike have dubbed it one of the best, most competitive public school systems in the nation.

But the district is facing unprecedented growth and increasingly limited public resources, according to a recent article in Bethesda Magazine. In the classroom, educators are also wrestling with a burgeoning achievement gap among students of different backgrounds.

This conundrum is not unique to MCPS. Across the country, large school districts with growing populations are struggling to accommodate more students, while continuing to offer an across-the-board quality educational experience to students and their families.

In cases where the quality has slipped, or where families can’t get the same level of attention and service to which they’ve become accustomed, many have decided to either move to another school district, or to enroll their children elsewhere.

Some educators refer to this phenomenon as “losing market share.” As charter schools and neighboring public schools compete for the same pool of students, the pressure is on to offer an educational experience that stands a cut above the competition.

Large school systems from Cleveland to Austin to Los Angeles have convened committees or invested in marketing to fend off competition from charters and neighboring districts alike. If market share is not already a topic of conversation in your district, it soon will be.

Getting bigger, but better?
As the local population surges, overcrowding is becoming a real problem for MCPS, reports Bethesda.

Nearly half of the school system’s “clusters”—sub-districts revolving around 25 separate high schools—report facilities at 105 percent capacity. Last year, more than 8,500 students in the district were served in portable classrooms.

Compounding matters, the magazine reports that MCPS has not received the state funding it needs to effectively manage its growth.

At the same time, MCPS is facing a widening achievement gap.

Like other school leaders in his shoes, new MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith has a lot on his plate.

How he and his team ultimately deal with issues of overcrowding and racial and socioeconomic disparity will go a long way toward determining whether MCPS remains one of the nation’s “crown jewels”—as one proud county councilmember dubbed the district.

“Howard County (a neighboring public school district) is knocking on our door.” Sharon Watts, a local elementary PTA president told the magazine. “Their schools are getting better and better, and our schools are getting bigger and bigger, and homebuyers are going to see that.”

Prioritize and plan
Every school district faces its own set of challenges. As a school leader, the onus falls on you and your team to find creative solutions to pressing issues, be it growth or competition, or both.

It’s easy to invest in marketing initiatives and other programs intended to make your schools stand out. Many of these programs work, to an extent.

But they don’t get to the root of the problem that schools like MCPS and others often face.

If you want parents and students to develop loyalty and affinity for your schools, you have to rethink and redesign the school experience.

Do students and parents feel valued? When they have concerns or questions about a decision in your schools, do they have a way to engage in a meaningful conversation or talk about what’s bothering them? Do you take the time to invite their feedback and to listen to their opinions? Or do you charge blindly ahead and make decisions in a vacuum?

As enrollments increase, don’t forget about the importance of good customer service. What steps do you take to embody a service culture in your district?

Looking for a better way to engage community members and build loyalty amid increased competition? Here’s one solution that might make sense for your district.

We’re still chasing the broadband dream

In 2014, the Federal Communications Commission expanded the federal E-rate program to help schools provide students with access to high-speed internet.

One of the main goals as part of that expansion was to help states get broadband internet to rural schools and those that need it most.

Depending on who you talk to, those efforts are starting to pay off. Education Week reports that Wyoming, one of the most rural states in the nation, is just the second state to achieve 100-percent high-speed connectivity across all its schools.

A glass is half-full person might say, “Well, if Wyoming did it…”

On the other hand, it’s a little disheartening that just two states have achieved total broadband access.

Indeed there is plenty of work still to do, especially if you believe a new report released this month by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA).

The report, The Broadband Imperative II: Equitable Access for Learning, is a  sequel of sorts to two previous reports—one from earlier this year and another from 2012. It rightly acknowledges the strides that have been made to close the broadband gap in schools, while calling for expansion of high-speed internet both inside and outside of school.

In the report, SETDA makes four recommendations:

Increase infrastructure to support Student-Centered Learning
The report makes specific recommendations, including for service provider speeds and network sizes. But the most important piece might be SETDA’s call for schools to look ahead.

“SETDA discourages schools and districts from developing broadband expansion plans simply based on current usage,” according to the report. “Usage data may be skewed to limited digital learning experiences for students or teachers and/or minimal usage of advanced tools and resources for school administration.”

In other words, schools should think about the future of education technology and plan accordingly. Any plan to develop or to expand broadband access should first consider what’s best for students and the different ways they learn.

Design infrastructure to meet capacity targets
In many cases, schools need to rethink why and how their networks are being used in the first place.

There was a time several years ago when broadband networks were largely reserved for processing heavy backend administrative functions, such as grading or attendance systems. These days, the lion’s share of broadband demand comes from the classroom and in other places built to support student learning.

“As districts and schools move to seamless digital learning environments,” the report’s authors write, “the importance of designing high-capacity and widely available networks, including the utilization of wireless networks is essential.”

Leverage state resources to increase broadband access
According to SETDA, at least a third of U.S. states don’t provide direct funding to help schools improve broadband access.

Perhaps not surprisingly, SETDA recommends that states exhaust all available resources, be it direct funding, state-level and federal programs, or other means to support district-level broadband expansion.

Ensure equity of access for all students outside of school
Even when schools do everything they can to ensure students have access to high-speed internet in the classroom, far too many students still encounter substandard access at home.

This “homework gap” will only continue to widen as schools migrate to digital curricula and devices, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told the attendees at the International Society for Technology in Education conference last year.

While schools can’t provide internet directly to homes, forward thinking educators can help parents identify creative solutions to ensure students and families get the broadband access they need.

SETDA suggests three ways for states, districts, and schools to promote the extension of broadband access outside school:

  • Provide outreach and education for families—particularly low-income families—on the importance of high-speed internet access.
  • Work with community organizations to provide more robust connections.
  • Make sure that community members and families know and understand every option for acquiring affordable high-speed access at home.

What steps does your school or district take to ensure its students have equitable access to high-speed internet? Tell us in the comments.

Are you planning a digital expansion in your district this year? It’s a good idea to see where your community stands on the idea. Here’s a few ways to start that conversation right now.