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Community weighs in on school climates

Published 11:31 am, Friday, August 22, 2014
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There's a stark contrast between how happy students in elementary school are compared to those in high school, according to results from a school climate survey.

In total, 2,585 students, 592 staff members and 1,122 parents participated in the survey. There were 4,895 students in the school system in the 2013-14 school year.

According to the parent survey, 92 percent of their elementary school-aged children enjoy going to school all or most of the time compared to the 66 percent of high school students. According to the survey, 97 percent of elementary school students said they liked going to school in the morning.

Additionally, 23 percent of high school students only enjoy going to school some of the time compared to the 2.5 percent of elementary school children.

Overall, the survey reveals that the climate in the elementary schools is a positive and safe one, according to teachers, parents and students who participated.

Elementary schools

Comments at the end of the survey reveal that each of the five elementary schools have room for improvement, most notably on the playgrounds and the buses.

"The playground has historically been under supervised," one Holmes parent wrote when asked if there were any areas of the school that were not safe. "Sometimes the level of competition goes `over the top' with name-calling and one-upping."

Parents and students also noted that some of the buses are overcrowded.

Among the elementary students, 98 percent of those who answered said they feel safe in their schools.

Eighty percent of the teachers at the five schools say the climate is positive all or most of the time.

"I love the collaboration and student-centered learning environment here," wrote one Holmes teacher. "I would like to see more clarification in procedures and job responsibilities."

Teachers are divided on whether or not there are clear policies and procedures at the elementary schools.

Overall, 75 percent of the elementary school teachers believe their facilities have such practices in place, while 25 percent say they do not.

"The biggest concern I have about my school is a lack of clear-cut procedures," wrote one Ox Ridge teacher. "There are also inconsistencies with the curriculum and teacher expectations."

The students feel happy while at school, but 2 percent of the students who participated in the survey said they feel unhappy at their schools.

"I really enjoy being at Hindley," wrote one Hindley student. "I feel very safe here. I also like my teacher and learn a lot from him. Hindley is a really fun school!"

Middlesex Middle School

Once students enter the middle school, opinions start to shift about whether the students enjoy attending school or not. Middlesex parents report that a majority, 55 percent, of their children like going to school most of the time. Parents report that 35 percent of their children like going to school all of the time while 9 percent only like going to school some or none of the time.

Students' opinions are somewhat different than their parents'.

Fifty-one percent of students enjoy going to school most of the time, while 19 percent said they always like going to school. Additionally, 25 percent of the students say they sometimes like going to school, while 4 percent say they don't like going at all.

Like the elementary school parents, 97 percent of parents with children in the middle school say that they feel the school is physically safe, while 3 percent report that the school is physically safe only some of the time.

"I would prefer that the security guard at the door be trained in the use of firearms (police officer, ex-military, etc.) and -- and it pains me to say this -- carry a gun to try and stop a shooter if he or she tries to enter the school," wrote one Middlesex parent.

Following the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, new safety measures were put in place at the Darien schools. The district hired campus monitors for the schools, though they were not hired as a guard in the event of a shooter entering the schools, former Superintendent Stephen Flacone said in 2013. The high school has a resource officer from the Police Department on the campus.

Almost all of the students who responded -- 95 percent -- said they feel the school is safe most or all of the time, while less than 5 percent say they feel the school is safe only some of or none of the time.

Students reported that they feel the buses are unsafe because they are overcrowded. Inside the school, students said the bathrooms feel unsafe because there are no teachers to enforce rules.

A majority of parents who responded to the survey credit the school with being an excellent learning environment, though some say that some of the teachers are difficult to reach for conversations with the teachers or administration.

More than 75 percent of the staff at Middlesex reported that the school offers a positive climate most or all of the time, while 21 percent say the climate is positive only some of the time.

"All staff members (admin, teachers, aids) work to promote a positive climate," one staff member wrote. "Most students will engage to support a positive climate."

Two staff members, or 1.5 percent of those who answered the survey, said the climate at the school is never positive.

"The leadership at this school is deplorable," wrote one Middlesex staff member. "We need a leader who cares about the school and treats everyone equally. The favoritism and nepotism are out of control making for a very insecure environment."

Another staff member reported that the climate at the middle school has gone "down the drain."

Though staff members reported that they feel they work in a positive school environment, others reflect a displeasure in the district leadership and Board of Education in the past year following a special education controversy that revealed a variety of illegal practices and policies within the district.

"I am overworked and feel under appreciated by the Board of Education, especially now that the district has been sued for (special education) violations," one staff member wrote. "Too often I hear or read in the paper that the BOE did not know of certain issues or conditions, like the lack of heat in an elementary classroom. The lack of appreciation, recognition and support from the BOE has added to the morale issues within the classroom."

Darien High School

Once students get to the high school, however, theirs and their parents' opinions radically change.

Parents reported saying that they feel there are numerous unlocked doors on campus that allow entry into the school "No place is ever 100 percent safe," one high school parent wrote. "But I think having a (school resource officer) is a very good thing."

Parents and students also make reference to students smoking marijuana in the school, particularly the "G Wing stairwell."

"The G building stairway at DHS is a key location for smokers," one high school student wrote.

Opinions about the high school varied -- while some parents lauded the school for its education, other parents found themselves disappointed in the school.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have found a way to have my children go away to school, even if it meant moving out of the district," wrote one Darien High School parent. "I dislike Darien schools intensely, but could not afford other options. DHS is not a supportive, encouraging environment, unless a child is exceptionally self-motivated."

Other parents liked the high standards set for their children. Many also spoke to exclusion of their children based on family income or social stature in the community.

"I feel the school culture excluded people based on their financial resources and have frequently heard or have heard of children being teased for not having money," one parent wrote.

"Lack of diversity engenders ignorance," a student wrote.

Among the high school students, 86 percent said they feel they are treated fairly by their peers most or all of the time.

"We need more trust activities," one student wrote. "The worst things I have heard in Darien High School is how the people treat each other. No one understand what goes on in everybody else's lives, yet they pick on people for stupid and unspecific reasons."

The majority of students from the high school who provided additional comments at the end of the survey expressed their delight at attending Darien High School.

"I am so thankful to be part of a community that is accepting, friendly and intellectually challenging as Darien High School," one student wrote.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 2503-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews