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Student Success: What’s Violence Got to Do With It?

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For many students, the fear of failing a class is less daunting than the fear of being assaulted or harassed. The UNITY Lab helps school stakeholders reduce violence, strengthen youth developmental assets, and create a learning environment where students thrive.

School of Fear: Violence on California Campuses

The California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), the primary instrument used state-wide to increase understanding of students’ health behaviors and academic performance, reported that nearly 30% of the middle and high school youth it surveyed were targets of bias-based harassment―bullying or physical violence inflicted because of race, ethnicity, or national origin; gender; religion; sexual orientation; or physical or mental disability. Research suggests that proactive measures are needed to dismantle bias-related violence and reduce its detrimental impact on students’ capacity to succeed academically.

School Environment Indicators

Suspensions and Drop-outs: Whether students are removed from school for violent behavior or drop out fearing for their safety, the problem seems to be growing. In 2007, California public schools suspended students more than 332,000 times for violence or drugs―a five percent increase from 2006. More than half (57%) of high school drop-outs surveyed in a national Gates Foundation study cited that their schools failed to keep them safe. In-class disruptions and the threat of imminent violence distracted their attention away from academics to staying out of harm’s way.

“I remember a week where I was bullied so much, I felt like slitting my wrists.” —Student participant in the Challenge Day program

Mental Health and Resilience Assets: The CHKS also shed light on the profound effects bias-related attacks had on students’ mental health and resilience. Victimized students were more likely to report feeling sad and hopeless―feelings closely associated with clinical depression―as well as less emotionally connected with other peers and adults. Perhaps not surprisingly, targeted students were more likely than others to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol, use illicit drugs, or carry a weapon to school. These risky behaviors and attitudes reflect a lack of external and internal assets―positive experiences and qualities essential to raising successful young people.

School-wide Achievement

CHKS studies indicate that school climate impacts Academic Performance Index (API), a summary measure of California schools based on students’ standardized test scores. The California Department of Education considers API the cornerstone of the Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 and a critical component of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Because school ranking and funding is tied to API, it remains a priority concern for school administrators. The CHKS found that school safety and student resilience/assets were among the four most significant factors affecting school API. As the percentage of students who perceived high levels of three assets―caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation―increased, so did API. Those schools with significantly lower percentages of students with these three assets ranked at the bottom of the scale.

“If you want students to read, write and do math, you’ve got to first have a climate that is conducive to learning.” —Ron Stephens, Executive Director of the National School Safety Center in Los Angeles County

The Institute for Advancing Unity: Building Capacity to Strengthen Youth Developmental Assets

The Lab’s Tools for Change approach provides a learning-outcome framework for building many of the assets that the national education research firm, Search Institute, has identified as critical to young people’s development. The chart highlights actions and tools that strengthen these assets and provides corresponding examples of learning experiences planned for The Lab. The Institute is collaborating with educators, community organizations, and youth to develop curricula, programs, online networks, and evaluation tools that can be implemented and modeled nationwide.

School Program Profile: Franklin High School, Elk Grove, California

Serving nearly 3000 students who speak 34 different languages, Franklin High School is emblematic of California’s diversity. It is also among the 78% of schools in the nation that the U.S. Department of Justice reports was the site of violent crime last year. But campus violence is less than it was two years ago, when English teacher Teresa Bandy convinced school administrators to try a new approach to reaching students on the brink―Challenge Day. Created by a Concord-based organization, Challenge Day is a program in which 100 students and several adult stakeholders are guided through experiential activities. High-intensity from the start, participants learn tools they can use to develop key developmental assets, from personal power and self esteem to positive peer support. By strengthening these assets, students are empowered to eliminate the acceptability of teasing, violence and all forms of oppression.

“It is likely that academic improvement efforts will be more successful when schools strive to promote the health and well-being of their students.” —California Healthy Kids Survey

Building Student Leadership & Capacity

Franklin High officials report that home suspensions for participants dropped significantly and that many are earning improved grades. But the strength and sustainability of the program would not be as successful without student leadership. Bandy teaches former Challenge Day participants to become mentors and facilitators in subsequent sessions. In 2006, there were 15 student mentors; as of June 2008, there are 71. Keren, once known for gang-banging and failing grades, is now a seasoned mentor and role model with her sights set on a career in law enforcement. Overall, the approach has led to a campus spirit of inclusion and nonviolence. Franklin believes it now has a school climate in which relationships vital to student success can be realized.

The UNITY Lab: A Model Relationship

Principal Charlotte Phinizy says relationships are the most vital asset in the school’s efforts to “close the performance gap”―the phrase educators use to describe each student reaching their highest academic achievement. Phinizy insists that teachers need a means to reach students, students should feel comfortable coming to school personnel for help, and students need a means to give and get support from their peers. Challenge Days have been that vehicle.

Franklin High’s unique partnership with The Institute for Advancing Unity has helped the school strengthen relationships on campus and off. In 2008, The Institute sponsored three Challenge Days at Franklin by subsidizing the costs of the program. The benefits were more than financial; The Institute brought difficult-to-reach community assets directly to the students and school personnel through involving board members, staff, grantors, and even representatives of state and local policy makers as volunteer facilitators. “I was so moved by my experience that I have sent my college students, colleagues and friends to volunteer.” says Marya Endriga, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and psychology professor.

Plans to conduct longitudinal studies of the impact of these initiatives on student achievement are being developed. Initial results will inform the development of similar relationships with schools across the state, the dissemination of best practices, and curricula and training to help schools model and evaluate successful approaches to promoting an asset-rich learning environment. The UNITY Lab will play a key role in these initiatives, as its educational facilities and activity spaces will provide a dynamic laboratory for promising models.

“If the kids who shot and killed my cousin had done Challenge Day, they would have had tools to solve their problems without violence.” —10th Grade Franklin High School Student