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May 20, 2011

UEI study links relationships and student safety

When relationships within a school are strong, the overall sense of safety is increased, and the two are correlated more strongly than the students’ neighborhoods, according to a report by the University’s Urban Education Institute (UEI).

The report found that advantaged high schools with low-quality relationships between students and staff, parents and staff reported about the same or even sometimes lower levels of safety than disadvantaged schools with high-quality relationships.

“The most important finding is that neighborhood circumstances from which the students arrive to schools does not solely determine the safety felt by students and teachers,” said Matthew Steinberg, the lead author and a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Harris School of Public Policy.

In the report, advantage was defined by measures of crime, poverty, resources available in home neighborhoods, and levels of academic achievement. Safety was measured through surveys of students and teachers.

Relating school organization and climate to factors outside of the school environment is a somewhat original topic in the literature on school safety, according to Steinberg.

“There is a role for schools, families, and teachers to play in insulating students from the adverse circumstances students are coming from in their home neighborhoods,” Steinberg said.

He also discussed the policy implications of the report, and said that it somewhat reinforces the efforts of Culture of Calm, an initiative put in place this year by the Harris School in 38 Chicago public schools. The effort focuses on improving the relationships and “social capital” between students and teachers.

One of the practical implications, Steinberg added, is the type of punishment used in schools. The report found that schools with high suspension rates had generally lower feelings of safety in students and teachers, though there is no causal relationship based on the current evidence.

In addition to correlational analysis, the report presents case studies that compare tactics aimed at improving the climate within a school. The study compares a categorically disadvantaged school, coded “Lake Erie” with “Huron,” an advantaged school, and suggests that a welcoming environment for parent visitors and respectful words from teachers to students cultivate the best learning climate.

“In unsafe schools like ‘Lake Erie,’ encounters between parents and school staff are charged by the chaotic, antagonistic environment of the school itself. The main office, where parents and visitors are directed upon entering the school, is frequently noisy and crowded,” the report described.

The third case study uses solely “Lake Erie” school, and shows the difference a strong relationship with even one adult at the school can make, improving confidence and grades among students.

The report, entitled “Student and Teacher Safety in Chicago Public Schools,” was released and funded by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the UEI, created by the U of C.

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