Children Now Insider: As kids head back to school, let’s consider how to improve school climate

By creating an environment where students feel connected and supported, they can thrive

A Q&A with Josefina Ramirez Notsinneh

August 26, 2019

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What is school climate, and why is it important?

School climate is broadly defined as the quality and character of school life.

At school, we want students to feel safe, connected to their peers and supported by caring adults. When students are engaged in school and surrounded by a positive school climate, they are more likely to learn and achieve academic success. Inclusive, student-centered, and restorative practices promote positive school climate.

 

What threatens positive school climate?

There are a variety of factors that can impact school climate, but one that we’ve been focused on, in our work at Children Now, is unfair, punitive discipline policies.

These policies negatively impact school climate and disproportionately affect students of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities. Research on implicit bias shows that teachers are more likely to associate challenging behavior with boys who are Black relative to their peers who are not Black. And, in 90 percent of California’s largest school districts, Black and Latino students were suspended and expelled at higher rates than other students. Over time, due to missed learning opportunities, these discipline policies have been shown to result in students’ poor performance: students suspended more than once were found to be six times more likely to repeat a grade and five times more likely to be pushed out of school.

We’re a member of the Fix School Discipline (FSD) coalition, which is focused on raising awareness about school climate and reforming student discipline practices. Together with the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, PolicyLink, Public Counsel, and others, we’re currently co-sponsoring Senate Bill 419 (Skinner).

 

Can you talk about Senate Bill 419?

SB 419 (Pupil discipline: suspensions: willful defiance) aims to protect California students from harmful school climate and discipline policies.

This bill builds on California’s leadership in reducing suspensions by extending limitations and eliminating “defiance/disruption” as grounds for suspension for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. In 2014, California eliminated suspensions for all students in kindergarten through third grade, as well as expulsions on the basis of “defiance/disruption” for all K-12 students, through AB 420.

And, to be clear, “defiance/disruption” is an incredibly subjective term, which makes it challenging to define and understand, and often does not address the root issue at hand. A teacher can consider something as simple as wearing a hat in class, or refusing to remove hoodie, as an act of defiance. Defiance suspensions contribute to racial inequality in our schools. Students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ students are disproportionately and needlessly deprived of their education when they are suspended for minor misbehaviors like violating the dress code, “talking back,” or falling asleep in class.

Children Now also co-led the FSD workgroup that has worked to monitor and support the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) implementation of administrator and teacher performance expectations. We initiated a new phase of work to ensure the FSD priorities secured in the prior performance expectations are fully incorporated into new expectations for counselors, social workers, and psychologists. With our coalition partners, we facilitated discussions with CTC staff, and provided feedback and language recommendations to ensure that positive social-emotional learning, and restorative and positive discipline practices, with the goal of reducing suspensions, were incorporated in the final performance expectations (which were adopted in April) and will be rolled out in the coming months to better prepare our educators.

By furthering the State’s efforts to reform school discipline and increase positive school climate, we can keep kids in school longer, reduce their contact with the juvenile justice system and improve overall high school graduation rates.

 

But school climate is about more than just discipline, right?

Absolutely.

Reforming punitive discipline policies is just one part of the equation.

We also need to make sure we’re considering the whole-child, and not just her academic self. If she’s distracted in class or acting out, that may be a result of a larger issue – a problem at home or violence in the community – and it’s important to understand the root cause in order to help the child heal, learn and thrive.

This is where caring adults on campus – from the teachers and administrators to the custodians, cafeteria workers and counselors – play a huge role. Every adult who works at a school interacts with students in a different way, and these interactions matter. Something as simple as saying hello, or asking how the weekend was, can help develop a trusting relationship and make students feel seen, which can be critical in moments of crisis or conflict.

The number of caring adults on campus has decreased in recent years, and students suffer as a result. Increasing the number of caring adults at schools is a primary focus of Children Now’s work. For example, in California, on average, there is only one guidance counselor for every 760 students, and only one administrator for every 300 students. Children Now will be releasing a brief soon on how school funding impacts the number of caring adults on campus.

Additionally, we are working to ensure that the adults who are on campus are equipped to address the very-real challenges facing students today.

For example, Senate Bill 428 (which we’re also co-sponsoring this legislative session), seeks to ensure that all California schools train a portion of their staff – including, but not limited to educators – in an evidenced-based, nationally recognized, in-person training program, like Youth Mental Health First Aid.  This training program is designed to equip individuals with the knowledge needed to recognize and de-escalate a mental health issue.

 

What else can we do?

School climate and student connectedness extends beyond the borders of the campus and into the community. We need to engage with the community and know what’s happening locally. We need to get parents, grandparents, siblings and caregivers involved and make sure there are open lines of communication between family members and school staff. We need to ensure that students feel supported by caring adults at school, not threatened by the presence of law enforcement or security officers on campus. A positive school climate is essential to students’ abilities to learn and thrive.

Josefina Ramirez Notsinneh is a Senior Associate, Government Relations for Children Now, a nonpartisan umbrella research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s health, education and well-being in California. 

Josefina is experienced in working with a wide-range of public affairs governmental and corporate entities on successful legislative, community outreach, and media relations campaigns. She previously served as a Senior Legislative Consultant in the Office of Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco), and prior to that spent 4-years at Ogilvy Public Relations, in their Sacramento public affairs practice, where she was a key member of the West Coast Latino outreach specialty team.

Prior to Ogilvy, Josefina spent a decade working in state government and politics, progressing from completing California’s prestigious “Capital Fellowship” program, serving as a legislative aide and consultant, being a committee consultant with the Assembly business and professions committee and to serving as the capitol director for a legislator.

Throughout Josefina’s vast experience in public policy, politics and community leadership – she’s been immersed in developing state and local programs that meet the needs of diverse communities in California. Josefina has critical experience working with local stakeholders to create partnership opportunities to find solutions to pressing issues that underserved communities face, and also has wide experience with political campaigns and interacting with ethnic media.

Josefina has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Chicano Studies from the University of California, Riverside. Originally from Orange County, she moved to Sacramento when she was selected as a Jesse Marvin Unruh Assembly Fellow in 2003. Josefina is a proud graduate of the Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE) Leadership Institute, a statewide leadership program for professional Latinas in California to gain vital leadership and advocacy skills. In 2013, Josefina was appointed by the California State Senate as a public member on the University of California Regents Selection Advisory Committee. She is actively involved in the Sacramento Latina Leaders Network. Josefina is also an alumna of the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project, and involved with the Asian Pacific Youth Leadership Project where she volunteers annually at these dynamic leadership conferences held annually in Sacramento for Latino and API high school students.