Culture & Climate: Shining the Light
As we emerge from the pandemic, we stand at the threshold of a unique opportunity to reinvent our school on the foundation of strong and respectful relationships, shared common understandings, and a renewed dedication to the intellectual, social, and emotional safety and growth of all students.
We, as educators and community members, leave the pandemic era aware of, and committed to alleviating, the impacts of a forced lack of socialization, a reliance upon social media, and a mandated disruption to the typical methods and delivery of instruction.
In order to develop a clear picture of our students' post-pandemic needs, we administered a Climate and Culture Survey in the Spring of 2022. Our intention was to obtain a snapshot of their thoughts and feelings coming out of this most unusual time in their lives.
The survey that we created was based on the New Jersey School Climate Survey and also included specific themes which were of particular interest to the Board of Education, specifically themes related to bias and racism.
The survey asked questions across several themes:
- Information/Identity (Demographics)
- Culture, Climate & Safety
- Staff / Family Members
Over 1,450 students, representing all four grade levels, responded to the survey in April 2022. We later asked students to further examine some preliminary results and provide additional feedback, clarification, and content. The following shares a snapshot of our students' thoughts with our school community. We offer a summary of survey results, which also includes action steps already taken or determined by the District, as well as a complete report of objective survey data.
summary of 2021-2022 Climate & Culture SURVEY Results:
The survey results indicate that our students' engagement in their learning is not where we would like it to be. Results show that too few students feel that they learn from their work, or feel that their work is interesting. Results also indicate that many students do not feel that their achievements are recognized. The majority of students report feeling “somewhat” or even less eager to participate in class.
We believe that strong relationships and deep personalization are necessary for a post-pandemic school to recapture students after two years of compromised teaching, learning, and socialization. As a strong step in this remediation, Hunterdon Central’s Board of Education has adopted an extensively revised Counseling Services Policy that establishes the role that we must play to help each student find fulfillment in their aspirations. We are exploring new ways to unlock our most compelling, powerful academic experiences in order to make them available to more of our students, rather than allowing years of prior tracking or lack of opportunity to determine how far and fast students can go in high school. We are convinced that if we offer personalized paths and lead students through individualized course progressions that align with their goals, rather than push them through outmoded tracks, student engagement will dramatically increase. We see this as one of the most necessary and challenging charges for the post-pandemic comprehensive high school.
Culture, Climate, and Safety:
Student responses to this theme indicate that youth socialization is a serious concern across our entire community. Although some responses indicate a clarity of expectations and awareness of assistance at Hunterdon Central, there are also responses that point out areas of focus for our next levels of work.
Student feelings about safety on campus are most important to us, as they reflect on what has always been our primary focus and are a crucial signal of student readiness to learn and engage. When students feel safe on campus, they have the ability to grow on campus. We have taken strong steps that focus directly on this priority and have increased security on campus significantly by:
- Adding Class 3 Officers, additional security guards, and additional security aides to our staff
- Rekeying all district locks
- Upgrading our camera surveillance system
- Upgrading security at major entrances
- Upgrading our emergency notification system
- Upgrading computer network security
- Installing and upgrading systems to track troubling network usage
- Upgrading our backup power resources
- Working with community agencies to develop early intervention programs
In the 2022-2023 school year, we are also installing vape detection systems across campus to assist in our efforts at curbing substance use, which we worry is increasing among youth in a complex landscape of decriminalization. These systems will also give us insight into vandalism and other concerns.
We recognize that partnerships with parents and community agencies are critical to addressing safety issues. We are eager to continue our cooperative work with our partner high schools, the County’s law enforcement agencies, the Office of the Prosecutor, the various agencies that serve children’s mental health and other needs through the Children’s Interagency Coordinating Council (CIACC), and the County’s faith community, through the OneVoice Initiative. Our partnership with Hunterdon Behavioral Health will continue to provide increased levels of mental health support, through the School-Based Youth Services Program. We will also continue our partnerships with organizations such as Prevention Resources that connect us to programs for mitigating troubling decisions and behavior. In all of this work, we will bring students and parents more directly into the conversations, in order to enrich those conversations and with as many perspectives as possible.
As students work and relate at school, participate in community activities, and relax at home, they always have one foot in the world of social media. Although social media played an important role in keeping us connected in a time of physical isolation, it also played a prominent and dangerous role in troubling student behavior, including incidents of harassment, bias, and racism. In the 2022-2023 school year, we will focus on putting down our devices when we have the privilege to be together in person and will work with parents and students to determine the best post-pandemic rules and expectations for screen time and social media.
After two years of pandemic schooling, student responses clearly indicate a lack of connection to adults at school. We recognize that strong relationships provide the basis for mentorship and positive influence in students’ lives. We are determined to make improvements in this area.
We believe that a stronger focus on shared dialogue and common understanding among staff, students, and parents will empower all constituent groups to form bonds over the important work that we must do together. We are eager to innovate new State requirements to involve students in governance through student representation to the Board of Education. We will also introduce structures for shared-decision making, including a new school and community organization to address together some of the serious issues we now face.
We must find ways to work through difficult staffing realities to ensure that adults are available to students who need individualized, one-on-one help in school. We believe that all adults in a school community work together as educators, no matter what our role at home or on campus, and that our main focus and purpose is to ensure that students grow along their strengths toward their aspirations. Our work is to remain attuned to student emotions and regulation, to concerns about self-expression and recognition in a large school community, and to providing the support students need to forge strong relationships with one another and with adults.
In this work, we need to ensure that parents see the trends that we see in student behavior and habits, and that we have open lines of communication with parents about the students who come to Central every day. We must continue to act as a clearinghouse for information about the challenges and opportunities that our students face, with the ability to connect parents to community resources and services.
We believe that if even one student feels a lack of belonging, we all suffer. In this survey, although some student responses indicated that there is fairness in relationships at Hunterdon Central, many other responses indicated that students do not feel a strong sense of belonging.
We believe that students will experience a sense of belonging when they feel engagement and safety in a culture that connects with them as individuals. Any failure to promote belonging requires a comprehensive approach across all of our work with all of our students. Hunterdon Central’s mission statement is clear in charging us to consider all students and their ability to take advantage of the opportunities that our school offers, and we renew our commitment to that mission.
Our Board of Education has taken a strong stance on belonging at Hunterdon Central with the unanimous adoption of Hunterdon Central's CARE Policy. This policy, developed through a comprehensive process that involved staff, students, parents, Board of Education members, and representatives from community and faith organizations, mandates that we work to ensure the belonging of each of our students, and that we work tirelessly to close any gaps resulting from systemic, implicit, or other barriers. Hunterdon Central welcomes a new Dean of Students to our administrative team this school year to ensure focus on this work.
Next Steps in Measurement:
The 2021-2022 Climate & Culture Survey determined clear directions for our work moving forward, and we have begun much of that work. However, we believe that this is only the initial step and our measurements are not done. Ongoing focus groups will continue to ensure that we keep conversations alive with as much context and as many different perspectives as possible.
We also see a need for understanding our observations in relation to what’s happening in schools across our region and our country. This fall, we will administer The Pride Survey–a nationwide survey designed to provide insights on climate, culture, substance use, mental health, and more. Through this survey, we hope to see how Hunterdon Central is doing in relation to other schools, and potentially identify partner schools with whom we can partner in this important work.
We are encouraged in our work by recent moves by the New Jersey Department of Education to provide a more robust platform for their climate and culture surveys with a New Jersey Climate Improvement Platform. Modeled on the older State survey, this new platform promises to help districts see a larger context in their survey results.
We will share much more information about surveys and other measurements at Hunterdon Central soon.
The following charts are categorized by major themes:
- Culture, Climate & Safety
- Staff / Family Members