In City Schools, Climate Change Is Not About the Weather

Aug 8, 2013


Another installment in our year-long series Empty Desks: The Effects of Chronic Absenteeism

With more than 17,000 Baltimore students missing more than 20 days of school last year, it is no surprise that school officials are seeking ways to change the climate in their schools. Last week, school police and administrators from 50 Baltimore schools attended “climate training” workshops to help them do just that.

After hearing various speakers one day, school officials began bouncing ideas off each other. How could they make their classrooms, offices, hallways and cafeterias more welcoming and nurturing places for students? One principal told his group that it may come down to a change in their management style. “We need to slow down and take time to listen to kids and find out what they’re going through. Let them talk instead of us always talking at them,” he said.

The premise behind the sessions is this: if schools look good, are safe and meet students’ academic and some personal needs, such as nutrition or childcare, students will attend classes more regularly. Karen Ndour, the schools’ executive director of student support and safety, organized the sessions. She predicted that the solutions school officials come up with to improve the atmospheres in their buildings will have a tangible effect on absenteeism. “School climate can make a difference in every way in attendance,” Ndour said. “If relationships in a school building are not conducive to teaching and learning, students won’t want to be in that school and you’ll see absenteeism spike.

The workshops, held at The Children’s Guild on McLean Boulevard, focused on suspensions, homelessness, bullying and violence, all part of a school’s climate that affects attendance. Ndor said educators must make schools “places where students want to come back to.” “Not only do we have to get them back into school but when they get there, we have to fulfill our promises to provide them with an appropriate education,” she said.

At the training sessions presenters emphasized the need for principals, teachers, guidance counselors, social workers and other school professionals to work closely together, sometimes outside their job descriptions, to improve their buildings’ environments.

In the discussion groups, school officials had a wide range of ideas:  designate people to greet students in the mornings to make them feel wanted and to gauge if a student has a problem; provide washers and dryers for students who miss school because they don’t have clean uniforms; or assign mentors to students with attendance issues who could follow up with them when they don’t show up for class. The mentoring idea caught Ndour’s attention. “When a student reads that someone, an adult in the building cares about whether they’re there or not and noticed that they were not, that makes a huge difference in whether or not the child will come back to school,” she said.

Robert Balfanz, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and the co-author of the first national study on chronic absenteeism, says educators must create an inviting and supporting place where students want to be. And they must respond to every absence.  “You have to have students know that when they are not there, they’re missed. When they are there, they’re celebrated and it’s a place they want to be,” he said.

Balfanz’ research found that 85,000 Maryland students missed more than 20 days of school last year. More than 20 percent of them live in Baltimore city.

At the workshop, Sharon Wise, an education consultant and author, advised school officials to make sure their solutions work for students.  For example, some principals suggested opening school food banks to help students who miss school because of hunger. Wise suggested having a telephone line installed to help students avoid embarrassment. “Kids who are hungry can call in and say I wanted to stop by but my boys were hanging out front/ Can you bring me a bag to the back door?” she said. “Everybody is not going to knock on the door and say I’m hungry. They don’t want nobody seeing them going to the food bank.”

This is the second year for the climate sessions. Craig Rivers, principal at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, said he implemented ideas from last year’s training and saw the number of incidents that triggered suspensions drop from 278 to 192 in one school year. He said a data packet he received last year showed him that most of those incidents occurred in the cafeteria. So he increased “our adult presence” in the cafeteria during lunch periods.

Wendell Arnett, a police officer at Walbrook High, said the individualized data from his school showed that a lot of incidents occurred at bus stops and along routes students take to school. That could keep students from getting to school. “We definitely have to pay more attention to detail to what our kids are doing outside of the schools,” Arnett said. “What we need to try to do is build better relationships, try to investigate more what possibly they might be going through on the outside to let them know they aren’t alone.”

State school superintendent Lillian Lowery applauded the district’s efforts, but said educators need to do more. “Of course climate makes a huge difference, but climate in a school environment is affected by what happens at home,” she said. “We need to find ways to be more interactive with the community at large, including students’ parents to see how we can be supportive of them.”

Qiana Simmons, assistant principal at Baltimore Liberation Diploma High School said she plans to meet more with parents to “take a deep dive into issues students and parents face and work together as a community.” “We are a family here,” she said. “And we want to grow the student academically and the parents physically and holistically to be successful, so students and parents and other stakeholders can come in and feel welcome in our school.”

Student support and safety director Ndour said district officials hope to add meditation classes in some schools, provide child care in alternative schools, where absenteeism is a major problem, and allow flexible schedules for students who need to work care for younger siblings. Ndour said eventually, representatives from all schools in the district will go through the climate training. “Before they can roll out strategies, before they can attain student achievement, they have to have a climate where adults and students want to be,” she said. 

Empty Desks is made possible through a grant from Open Society Institute-Baltimore: investing in solutions to Baltimore’s toughest problems.