Student survey shows Janesville public schools have work to do

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, January 4, 2014

JANESVILLE—As Janesville school officials pursue their goal of excellence in academics, they know it's hard to teach students who are worried about their safety or feel unwelcome at school.

One way the district takes the pulse of high school students is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The latest results, while they may not differ much from schools around the state and nation, show what educators are up against.

One statistic: 66 percent of students surveyed feel safe at school.

Yolanda Cargile, the district's director of student services, said it's good a majority feel safe, but 66 percent is not good enough.

Part of the solution is to get staff members to realize the issue exists and to react, Cargile said.

The message to staff: “Speak up, because what you permit, you promote. When a staff member doesn't speak up, the student thinks it's OK, and the student on the receiving end ultimately doesn't feel safe,” Cargile said.

The survey was administered in the 2013 spring semester to 1,211 students, mostly ninth- and 11th-graders.

In a year-end interview, Cargile discussed what the survey shows and what officials are doing in response.

“If a student doesn't feel safe, it's going to be close to impossible to educate the child because they're not in a comfortable environment in which they can relax and listen to the teacher,” Cargile said.

One of the smallest numbers on the survey is nevertheless of high concern to Cargile: 4.7 percent of students reported carrying a firearm at school.

“It's a small percentage, but it's not small in comparison to the safety of students,” Cargile said.

The district has added monitoring cameras at schools because of this, and there's an effort to improve relationships between students and staff so a student who becomes aware of a gun at school will feel comfortable reporting it, Cargile said.

One district goal is for every student to have at least one adult at school that the student can confide in.

Having enough staff to provide those positive relationships is a concern. Cargile wrote in a memo about the survey that the administration is looking at asking the school board to hire back positions lost during state funding cutbacks three years ago.

Those positions include assistant principals, counselors and social workers.

One survey question found only 49 percent of students saying their schools are friendly and welcoming. Another one showed just 58 percent of students agreeing that teachers care and offer encouragement.

Superintendent Karen Schulte has told all principals to work on school culture, emphasizing “positive contacts” with students and families and just talking to students so they feel welcome and respected, Cargile said.

Cargile said those kinds of contacts allow staff members to do what they hoped to do when they chose education as a career: make a difference in a child's life.

The survey is part of a grant-funded program to improve the climate at the district's high schools.

This is the last year for the four-year grant, which provided $90,000 each year for social workers, training of school staff and new equipment, including walkie-talkies and cameras to monitor school buildings, Cargile said.

The Department of Public Instruction says the grant was for the development of intervention plans to improve learning conditions in 14 to 19 districts.

The districts were selected for high numbers of disruptive drug- and violence-related incidents at school, but Cargile said Janesville's numbers were not as high as other schools, so Janesville barely qualified for the grant.

Specific goals were set for each school. Goals at Craig High, for instance, were to decrease the rate of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions and reduce numbers of students who said teachers don't care about them and that they have no one to talk to, Cargile said.

A goal at Parker High was to decrease bullying. Officials were especially concerned about students who said they were harassed or bullied for their sexual orientation, Cargile said.

Actions to address these problems include the ongoing Link Crew program, in which 11th- and 12th-graders are paired with incoming ninth-graders for support.

The schools also have held Youth Frontiers retreats to address diversity concerns. Youth Frontiers is a nonprofit that partners with schools to help students thrive socially, emotionally and academically.

Sometimes, the harassment is a case of a student not realizing that what seems like a joke is actually hurtful, Cargile said.

Cargile has assigned one social worker to address bullying. Each time bullying is reported, the perpetrator is targeted for follow-up, including discussion of how the incident hurt others and how the student can act differently in the future.

A practice called “restorative circles,” in which bullies and victims meet, has been particularly helpful in curbing future incidents, Cargile said.

The circles lead to a discussion of what happened and what the perpetrator can do to make things right.

The aggressor hears the victim say, “I was scared, embarrassed, etc.,” Cargile said. “Students don't want to be mean to one another, but they just don't think about the effects of their actions.”

Although the grant funding is running out, district leaders plan to continue working on these issues and monitoring surveys to see if they are making their schools safer and more welcoming, Cargile said.

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