JCPS Update: Positive school climate, trauma informed schools, and social emotional support for kids

In my years within Jersey City Public Schools as both an advocate and a parent, I have heard stories of children who experience poor school climate. School climate is a casual term that some of us may use in a colloquial sense, but it is also framed professionally by school and mental health experts in specific terms that can serve as an anchoring space for dialog. For example, "school climate" can be positively (or negatively) defined in various "domains" per the NJ School Improvement Survey (NJ SCI) including:

  • sense of belonging (or lack thereof)
  • sense of leadership (district, school) support (or lack thereof)
  • degree of family support (or lack thereof)

The full framework of these domains is shown below and available here on the NJ SCI website:

Other definitions and frames exist, including the National School Climate Center, which describes climate as inclusive of:

  • "Norms, values and expectations that support people feeling socially, emotionally and physically safe.
  • People are engaged and respected.
  • Students, families and educators work together to develop, live and contribute to a shared school vision.
  • Educators model and nurture attitudes that emphasize the benefits and satisfaction gained from learning.
  • Each person contributes to the operations of the school and the care of the physical environment."

One outcome from a fully funded budget should be more fulsome support of positive school climate in all of our schools. I'm attempting to support a dialog around this topic that started with advocates with Jersey City Together's Education Team; I want to use my CivicParent platform to support the dialog and invite more people into it.

School Climate - what it is, and how we can support it

First, let's aim to put language to "positive school climate" because it can be defined. We can assign concrete language to it (as the graphic above does) and have a dialog with school authorities about what our shared expectations can be. For example, the NJ School Climate Improvement (NJ SCI) Platform states:

"School climate encompasses the dynamic and diverse feelings, perceptions, and impressions of school community members – in other words, the quality or experience of how it feels to be a part of the school community from one’s unique identity and perspective, as well as in interaction with other members of the community.  Perceptions of school climate can change over time and are shaped by factors at various levels. At the broadest level, national and societal events and conditions can influence policies and procedures at the state and local levels, which can shape teaching and learning conditions in schools. Smaller group contexts within schools, like classrooms, can also have their own climates (referred to as “microclimates”) and norms of behavior in response to various environmental influences."

What's more, positive school climate is clearly worth aiming for. This is not a "nice to have." This is a need. NJ SCI continued, sharing:

"Research consistently shows the importance of promoting a positive school climate for all students, staff, and parents/caregivers*.  Positive school climates promote higher levels of student academic achievement and foster the physical, psychological, and social and emotional well-being of both students and staff. Promoting the overall well-being of all staff and students creates conditions for effective teaching and learning that lead to more positive student academic and developmental outcomes."

Why the deficits exist in 2022, but also why in 2022 there is opportunity to address those deficits, is also important to understand.

Jersey City Public Schools - school climate supports have been stripped from years of underfunding

If you listened carefully to board of education meetings in the past five to ten years (like I have), you may have heard talk of "efficiencies" and "balancing the budget (to available, shrinking revenues)." That was code for "stripping kid-supportive resources out of our public schools." Key "kid-supportive" resources included social workers, mental health counselors, CITs, and more. The critical "outside the classroom" support staff who were charged with supporting positive school climate were laid off because for years our district was defunded and these positions were viewed as expendable. So they were struck from our budgets and stripped from our schools. Now, post-pandemic, we realize how much we need those positions back because our kids are suffering from lack of mental support.

In effect, our schools lack many of the critical supports that are required to support a positive school climate framework (talk to mental health experts and they will share this insight).

This is all urgent. Post-COVID, we are in a 'new pandemic' of mental health. The one sliver of good news is that money is available to staff up and get the supports back in the schools. But we must demand it because the lack of resources has arguably become normalized.

So let's assess where JCPS is as of Fall 2022, on a macro level, as it relates to mental health.

Updates on school climate, trauma informed schools, and social emotional support for kids

1--Jersey City Public Schools has a new Director of Student Life and Personnel Services.

Ms. Candace Coccaro was appointed at the September 22, 2022 board of education meeting to take over from Paula Christen, who previously held that role. You can view the public action to move Ms. Coccaro into the new leadership role here.  What's important about this role is that it outlines, from a district level view, the support and programming that should be happening in schools throughout the website. And it's a good time to take stock of what exactly this department is supposed to be supporting. From the district website, you can see the overview below (and I've underlined what I view as contributive language to school climate):

2--Ms. Coccaro was credited by Dr. Fernandez at the September board of education meeting for helping secure $3.8 million for "Project Resilience," a "multi-tiered trauma response" program.

This is in addition to $4.5 million of ESSER II related social emotional learning (SEL) learning funds, which is viewable in the district's monthly "ESSER II tracker" here (and I have a screen shot below):

3--We are beginning to see how the district is investing in school climate. 

At the October 20th monthly Board of Education meeting, the public was given insight into how the district is thinking about investing in school climate. Parents and caregivers should be aware of the district's initiatives and what it means for our kids. At that meeting, Dr. Fernandez shared a lengthy video outlining the mental health supports that will begin to unfold in our schools. That video is available at the link below, starting at the 3:26 (3 hours, 26 minutes) mark.

Full transparency -- I do not have the skillset to gauge the quality of the programs outlined by the district; we need trained mental health and school experts to share their insights. Some of those experts are on the Jersey City Together Education Team. [And, a related note: if you're interested in this topic and want to engage it, one thing you can do is email education@njtogether.org and ask to be connected to the Mental Health team.]

What I can share in this post is a continued frame to help paint a picture of what school climate support should look like (this was shared with me by a mental health expert on the JCT team).  The National School Climate Center explains that a proactive focus on school climate can be grouped into five "buckets." I found this breakdown so helpful that I'm including a screenshot directly from the NSCC website:

There is a whole field of study and practical expertise that can help drive this, but district leadership must be willing to engage it and fund it. We are seeing signs that that is happening; that's a good step, but we need more parents and caregivers engaged and aware. There are grants available to support this and more programming, but again, district leadership must pursue all available grants and resources. The mental health advocacy team within the Jersey City Together team has been working to educate many (including me) on this paradigm.

4--What is the cost of not investing in positive school climate?

We should consider the opportunity cost of the status quo, i.e. of keeping our schools stripped bare of additional, paid professional staff who can help current school staff create positive school climate. We can glean insight into some of that cost with current suspension data. Suspensions are one lens into school climate; it is a punitive lens and it represents

  • disruption that is resulting in punitive measures being taken by the school
  • staff time spent implementing those punitive measures
  • children who both disrupt, are disrupted, or are exposed to disruption (e.g. as witnesses) who must make sense of the disruption

So I took a look at the SY 2021-22 suspension data reported each month by the office of Student Life Services; I digitized it from Board Docs.

One observation was that suspensions rose throughout the year last year. Rather that disruption being proactively addressed, we can see a trend of it growing out of control. This is a district-wide view, and per-school views would point to more nuance. But this districtwide view is important because it points to districtwide leadership to take note. And we must ask:  Will we see the same trends this year? Or, can we being to address some of the issues at the root, and get staff into the schools to help meet kids where they are, support them, support the teachers and staff, and more.

Parents and caregivers can play a role here.

Parents can help play a role. We can ask questions of district leadership, like

  1. Is JCPS measuring school climate as suggested by the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (which is under the umbrella of the US Department of Education)?
  2. Is JCPS applying for all possible SEL grants available from ESSER II and federal sources? For example - there is a Safe Supportive Schools grant due Nov 2022.
  3. How is JCPS planning on ensuring that SEL grants are implemented with SEL-trained staff (eg licensed social workers)?

Parents and caregivers can, and should, be on point to inquire if all possible SEL/Positive School Climate funds are invested in kids. We have a responsibility to demand it and a right to ensure it's invested.

One final note: last night after the mental health supports video was shown, Trustee Naomi Valazquez suggested that this presentation around mental health "go on a tour" throughout the district. Her point, which I thought was excellent, was that not everyone will access this information via the website, Facebook, or other online sources. The district must invest in communicating this paradigm to all interested stakeholders. That is part of the investment; to communicate and educate about these services, why they are important, and how they can help our schools.

Resources for parents and caregivers to check out for further research and learning:

  1. National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (US Department of Education)
  2. Save and Supportive Schools (US Department of Education)
  3. NJ School Climate Improvement Platform (NJ Department of Education)
  4. NJ School Climate Survey (Info landing page from NJ Department of Education)
  5. Learn more about SEL learning:

 

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