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TN: Sullivan County's Respect and Leadership Initiative

Sullivan Central's Respect and Leadership Team.

Summary: School officials in Sullivan County, Tenn., used data to link an improved school climate to increased student achievement. District officials have used school climate surveys and data to inform and develop a Respect and Leadership initiative that focuses on student involvement to prevent bullying and harassment and foster a positive atmosphere in schools.

Sullivan County, Tenn.’s initiative to improve school climate began in 2003 after the U.S. Justice Department mandated the school district take steps to address bullying and harassment following a lawsuit over a peer-to-peer racial incident that originated at one of the district’s high schools.

But improvements made through the district’s Respect and Leadership Initiative were so striking in some schools that district leaders and the Sullivan County Board of Education continued to support the initiative—both financially and through leadership—even after the mandate was lifted.

From 2003 to 2006, data collected by three rounds of school climate surveys asking questions about race relations, harassment and student-adult relationships in the overwhelmingly white district showed that two thirds of schools had significant improvements in their school climate. An analysis of the data showed a positive correlation between an improvement in school climate and rising test scores, indicating that 9 percent of the improved achievement could be linked to school climate boosts. Though tight budget times are creating some changes, the district is committed to continuing the program.

How the program was started

The initial data from the surveys was critical, said Ron Smith, chairman of the board of education. “At first a lot of the school board members didn’t see the need for this,” he said. “Those surveys became some of our most valuable resources.”

District Characteristics
Name: Sullivan County Public Schools
State: Tennessee
Type: Suburban
Grades: K-12
Students per teacher:

Enrollment Characteristics
Economically Disadvantaged:
English language learners:
Students with disabilities:
Asian/Pacific Islander:

For instance, for Wendell Smith, the principal of Ketron Intermediate School, the results of his school’s initial climate survey were “shocking.” “You always know your school has some problems but when you see it on paper in percentages and black and white, you have to believe it,” he said. As he examined the data, he realized some groups of students (particularly college-bound, white students) shared his positive outlook about his school’s climate, but many other groups of students did not.

Some of the suggestions students presented to improve school climate at Ketron were to have teacher watch zones in areas where students reported feeling unsafe, particularly stairways during the changing of classes. Now, teachers monitor those areas daily. The school also began to highlight historical and cultural information for Hispanic awareness month, for example, or African-American history month, Smith said.

Initially, Smith said, disciplinary reports of harassment went up. “Students finally felt comfortable coming to us,” he said. “A lot of things happened before that, but no one reported it.”

Eventually, disciplinary reports dropped and the school’s second climate survey improved, especially on the question of whether students felt safe in on campus, Smith said.

Following up feedback with action

Obviously, the Respect and Leadership initiative went beyond data collection. In addition to school climate surveys, the Respect and Leadership initiative followed the SafeMeasures process, designed by New Hampshire-based Main Street Academix, the company which performed the school climate surveys and oversaw the initiative. The first stage was the development of a leadership team at nearly all elementary, middle and high schools. This leadership team included the building principal, a cadre of teachers and a group of diverse students. The student leadership team, in consultation with adults, then analyzed data from the school climate surveys, set three goals for improving climate and developed action plans for implementation.

Students play a central role in the SafeMeasures process, so choosing a diverse student leadership group is crucial, said William K. Preble, an education professor at New England College in Henniker, N.H. and president of Main Street Academix. Students on the Respect and Leadership teams must represent all the groups at the school and often may be “negative” school leaders. “A lot of these kids can’t believe they got picked,” Preble said. “It changes them.”

Those students facilitate collecting survey information and presenting data to teachers and other adults, including school board members. They provide bullying and harassment training sessions to other students and spearhead action plans and climate-improving initiatives. Sheri Nelson, a Spanish teacher currently at Sullivan East High School who has worked closely with Respect and Leadership teams, said adults are more receptive hearing from students.

When presenting the climate survey data, “Students led the faculty meeting and it was the most productive faculty meeting everyone had ever been to,” she said. “Teachers will listen to students before they’ll listen to other teachers.”

Though the students have an impact on adults, the process also impacts students involved. Taylor Harrison, a rising senior at Sullivan East High School, said serving on the Respect and Leadership team gave her confidence that students could make a difference. It taught her to work with many different types of people and helped shatter stereotypes, she said.

The initiative also focused on fostering respect between students and teachers. “You need to look at every aspect of your school day, including how teachers are approaching learning in the classroom,” Barnes said. The district concluded that to be respectful of students, teachers must instruct in a way that respects different ways of learning. The district instituted professional development on differentiation so that teachers could show consideration for all types of learning styles. The district also extended the school day by 30 minutes to provide more time for students on task. And teachers met as a team every two weeks to talk about every single student’s progress, which impressed students, said Jack Barnes, the district’s former director of schools. “The students know you’re interested enough in them and care enough about them to try and help them with their problems,” he said. “That goes back to the security and safety of the school.”

The results

The 2006 analysis found that schools with significant improvements in school climate also had the biggest jump in academic achievement scores. Researchers determined that 9 percent of the improved achievement could be accounted for by improvements in school climate.

The data was “enlightening,” said Barnes. The link between school climate and student achievement came as “sort of a ‘duh’ moment,” he said. “If I’m a student and I feel safer and more secure about going to school, I can focus more on academics.”

The findings in Sullivan County are supported by independent research. A four-year, national study by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, analyzed hundreds of research papers on the subject and found an 11 percent correlation between improved academic achievement and school climate. In addition, Sullivan County School also saw a drop in disciplinary issues and improved communication between adults and students in the district, Barnes said.

But the data is not cut and dried. Not all schools embraced the initiative and some schools did not show improvements in school climate. In addition, the surveys showed that of the district’s 27 schools, seven schools showed a decline in school climate from 2003 to 2007. Twelve schools improved during the first three years of the initiative and then showed a decline.

Jubal Yennie, the district’s director of schools since 2010, said some aspects of the initiative, including the climate surveys, may have run their course. In these tight economic budget times he doesn’t plan on doing additional surveys. However, he said the Respect and Leadership teams have been very successful at some schools and he supports their continued existence. “The sponsors and the students are able to work through a lot of different initiatives and gain positive results by involving different kids,” he said. “The goal is for it to become sustainable.”

The Respect and Leadership initiative has gained attention for its successes. In 2010, Sullivan County was featured at the first-ever federal summit on bullying in Washington, D.C. In addition, the state of Tennessee is developing a statewide school climate initiative based, in part, on the work done in Sullivan County.

“It’s more than just stopping bullying and harassment, and it takes the involvement of students and the entire staff to make this work,” Barnes said. “But students should feel safe and secure in school. It’s the right thing to do.”

Lessons Learned
  • Data is critical. Collecting data to provide an accurate reflection of school climate and aggregating that data is critical. The data is an important tool in getting school board members, administrators, teachers and students to buy into the initiative and in measuring success. “Once the school board saw that we had a pretty important gain in academic performance with the school climate effort, they said why not continue this,” said William K. Preble, president of Main Street Academix, which did the school climate surveys in Sullivan County.
  • Students must take the lead. A diverse group of students should be chosen to participate in the Respect and Leadership teams at each school. This team must represent various groups at the school from the so-called unpopular students, Goth students, college-bound students, athletic and non-athletic students. These students must play a central role in collecting survey information, presenting survey data to adults and students, setting goals to improve school climate and training their peers.
  • Take each report seriously. Sullivan County officials said reports of bullying and harassment often rise once students know that their concerns will be taken seriously by adults at their school. “We had to learn not to brush things aside and no longer say, ‘It’s just kids being kids,’” said Sheri Nelson, a Spanish teacher at Sullivan East High School. “We have to acknowledge that their feelings are important and their perspectives are important.”
  • Get leadership on board. If the administration is supportive of the initiative, teachers are more likely to get on board. While there’s unlikely to be 100 percent buy-in from staff, the tone set by a school board and school and district leadership has impact. “You have to have the administration backing you up,” Nelson said. “When the administration jumped on board, that motivated the teachers.”


Janie Barnes
Sullivan County Schools
423-429-5663 or 423-354-1083

Posted: August 1, 2011

© 2011 Center for Public Education

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