By Guest Columnist CAITLIN DAUGHERTY KOKENES, project manager at the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education
Recent events such as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February and similar occurrences across the country have brought to light the importance of school safety and student mental health.
As students, parents, administrators, and others search for ways to ensure that schools are safe places, some may be surprised to know that Georgia is a leader among states when it comes to making a concentrated effort to address and improve school climate – a term used to refer to the quality of student and staff life at schools, including the level of school safety. Relatedly, there are a host of efforts currently underway to provide for and address student mental health support. In addressing school climate, Georgia has pulled ahead of many states as a leader.
School climate refers to the quality and character of school life based on patterns of students, parents, and school personnel’s experience of that school life – according to the National School Climate Center. In 2014, Georgia became the first state in the country to include school climate as an early indicator in the accountability system for all schools.
School climate is included as a part of school accountability through the School Climate Star Rating. This rating is a tool used to determine if a school is on the right path to improving school climate. The ratings are a “star system” of one to five stars given based on several components including responses to the student, teacher, and parent annual perception survey; student discipline rates; safe and substance-free learning environment assurance, which is based on school discipline data and student survey responses related to factors like drugs, alcohol, bullying, and dangerous incidents; and attendance data for students and school staff.
With increasing attention being paid to school climate, the Georgia Department of Education has begun implementing some important changes across the state that have shown to have a positive effect on school climate.
Staff at schools across the state are being trained in the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program. PBIS is an evidence-based, data-driven framework currently used in 96 counties, which focuses on a school-wide approach to reduce discipline issues and advance a climate of increased productivity, safety and learning. The DOE estimates that over 675,000 Georgia students in more than 1,200 PBIS schools and programs are seeing and feeling the effects of improving school climates. Even more school personnel are completing trainings this month, so those numbers will continue to increase.
The school-based trainings, such as the Wisconsin-created How to Create Trauma Sensitive Schools, that these programs provide are helping to create trauma-sensitive PBIS schools. This is more important than ever since recent events have given many students anxiety related to attending school.
Caring for student mental health is an integral part of the PBIS framework. Through partnerships with local school districts and the DOE, some key projects including Project AWARE and the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities’ Apex Program, have emerged that are helping identify students’ needs and provide greater access to mental health services. Project AWARE provides training in Youth Mental Health First Aid to school personnel and helps connect families to community-based services. The Georgia Apex Program similarly helps to build infrastructure, create increased access, and connect students to resources for responding to mental health needs. In the coming fiscal year, Gov. Nathan Deal has included a $4.3 million budget increase for the Georgia Apex Program, a move that will surely increase its potential to help even more students and schools tackle mental health challenges.
I spoke with a Project AWARE staff member, Kelly Petaccio, for her thoughts on supporting students in times like these.
“Our students are definitely struggling with processing recent school violence events, but other things as well,” Petaccio noted. “Trauma-informed care is more important now than ever.”
One program she highlighted that one of her schools recently adopted is titled Sources of Strength. This program is nationally known to prevent suicide and improve school climate. Another great thing about Sources of Strength is that it is student-led, with opportunities for staff and caring adults to become natural supporters.
Students start by self-voicing areas that give them strength, including voicing a need for adult support. By using their own voice to address their concerns about gun violence, students are feeling more empowered.
“It gives a creative outlet for students around methods that are proven to help students and people in general,” Petaccio said, while describing the program and its potential to be a positive force. Sources of Strength is a great example of trauma-informed care.
Data shows that elementary schools with better school climate ratings have higher levels of proficiency on third grade English Language Arts Georgia Milestones tests, which are shown to be strongly correlated to high school graduation rates. Since Georgia has begun implementing the PBIS framework across school districts, out-of-school suspensions have declined, corporal punishment use has declined, and the high school graduation rate has gone up.
Georgia is a leader when it comes to noting the importance of school climate and supporting student mental health, and strong leadership within the state is helping to make sure that trend continues. In December 2017, the Commission on Student Mental Health that was convened by the governor in July 2017, released a report with recommendations for better supports for student mental health. Many of these recommendations were to expand programs that are already in place but functioning at limited capacity – such as Project AWARE and the APEX Project. Additional recommendations included increasing the use of telemedicine and developing additional support procedures for students with the most severe challenges.
\While there is a greater need than ever to support student mental health, it is exciting to see that there is momentum around increasing access to services for students and improving school climate. Georgia is leading the charge to improve school climate. As these improvements spread, more and more children will have the opportunity to feel safe, learn, and thrive.
Note to readers: The Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that produces research on issues affecting education and the business community in Georgia.