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CDE Ed Talks Podcast Episode 1

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Priority X — School Climate

Published: January 11, 2019, Duration: 00:36:33

This episode talks about school climate, one of the school priorities created by the Local Control Funding Formula. It features an interview with Dr. Susan Levine of the Riverside County Office of Education, who talks about some of the innovative work that her county does to help districts understand and improve school climate.



[Intro music plays]

Jacquelyn: Hi, I'm Jacquelyn Ollison

Jen: And I'm Jen Taylor.

Jacquelyn: And you're listening to Priority X

Jen: On CDE Ed Talks.

[Music fades]

Jacquelyn: In 2013, the Local Control Funding Formula was established and it changed the way that schools are financed. Essentially if you have more English learners, more socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and more foster youth in your school district you get more money—which is great in my opinion. It's an equity based formula in the sense that you're giving more to the students who need it. In addition to changes in how we finance schools the Local Control Funding Formula also ushered in new state priorities—eight to be exact and 10 if you are county offices of education. Today we're going to be talking about State Priority Six: School Climate. In our accountability system, school climate is measured at two levels: with a state indicator which is suspension rates, and at the local indicator level which is administering a climate survey every other year to students, teachers, and parents this Local Control Funding Formula also ushered in the Statewide System of Support.

Jen: Yeah and the Statewide System of Support is really a comprehensive system to support school districts in California and it really, you know, kind of organizes multiple entities such as the California Department of Education, the California Collaborative For Educational Excellence, county offices of education and others to organize tools resources and other supports to provide technical assistance—which is ongoing support to school districts. That's really you know kind of who that is targeting. School districts [are] kind of that unit of change in this system. You know it's really exciting because it's multiple levels and it's modeled after the Multi-Tiered System of Support, also known as MTSS. So these different levels and with the system of support there are three main levels: There's support for all; there's differentiated assistance, which is more of a targeted support; and then the third level is intensive support, so for those struggling school districts providing a little bit more support through various partnerships.

Jacquelyn: Yes and I think it's worth mentioning that this theme of equity runs all the way through the Local Control Funding Formula and the statewide system of support. All of these supports really are designed to reduce disparities in outcomes and so when we talk to Dr. Susan Levine momentarily, you're going to hear from her how the Riverside County Office of Education works to reduce those disparities. But I think we would be remiss to have any conversation about school climate without actually defining what school climate is. And so we're going to use a definition that was generated by the School Conditions and Climate Workgroup, which the California Department of Education convened in 2016. This workgroup was comprised of some phenomenal people—teachers, administrators, researchers community activists, parents—all working together to look at ways in which we can improve the resources and supports we provide for school climate as well as how we measure it in our accountability system, or the dashboard. That work, which lasted over a year and a half and got tons and tons of input from different stakeholders resulted in a very comprehensive set of recommendations. So comprehensive, in fact that we had to divide them into three buckets just to be able to actualize them all.

The first bucket was really focused on things that we could take to the state legislature around school climate. And this year we were excited to see that 15 million dollars was awarded to address school climate, in particular through restorative justice practices, around discipline.

The second bucket was really focused on work that we could take to the State Board of Education and we are proud to say that the self-reflection tool which I mentioned before when I was talking about the local indicator has now been updated based on the work on the School Conditions and Climate Workgroup. So essentially what happens is that once the local climate survey is administered you have to take a look at your data. And as a best practice we recommend that it be disaggregated by race so that you could see how all of our student groups are feeling in terms of safety, sense of connectedness, relationships around your school's climate. Then once you look at that data, you'll be asked that you make meaning from that data. So what does that mean? What does that tell you if you see that students with disabilities do not feel as connected to the school as Asian Pacific Islander students? What do you do with that?

So that's the third piece: use. How do you take that data which you've made meaning from and use it to actually improve your school climate services? Or if you see that it's telling you while you're doing a really great job you know you're going to continue that course. Either way, you respond to these types of guided questions in the self-reflection tool. Now the last bucket is bucket three, which actually has to do with how can we provide supports and capacity-building in the area of school climate through the Statewide System of Support. Priority X is part of bucket three.

So having said that, let's go back to that definition. So this is from the School Conditions and Climate workgroup. “School conditions and climate refers to the quality and character of school life. This includes the values, expectations, interpersonal relationships, materials, resources, supports, physical environment, and practices that foster a welcoming inclusive and academically challenging environment.

Jen: “Positive school conditions and climate ensure people in the school community, which includes students, staff, family and community feel socially, emotionally and physically safe, supported, connected to the school and engaged in learning and teaching.”

Jacquelyn: Every time I hear that definition I'm just always in awe. It’s so comprehensive and it really just captures what I want as a parent for my kids. What about you, Jen?

Jen: Yeah, exactly. This is why we started with school climate. You know we felt it was just so important that we start with this one within this Priority X series.

Jacquelyn: So in a moment we are going to join the conversation with Dr. Susan Levine of the Riverside County Office of Education and we just want you to listen as she describes her journey through education and the different supports that they provide and perhaps maybe you might glean some insights or some tips or techniques that will be helpful for you in your own area.

[Music plays]

Jacquelyn: We are happy to welcome Dr. Susan Levine from the Riverside County Office of Education. How are you doing today Dr. Levine?

Dr. Levine: I'm groovy, thank you. Everything is great in Southern California.

Jacquelyn: So glad to hear that, and I love it that your groovy. Question for you: Why did you decide to become an educator?

Dr. Levine: Oh gee. You know some people become educators because they've had great teachers and they would like to emulate that but I became a teacher because I didn't have many great teachers. And I thought I could do a good job and that I could difference in students’ lives.

Jacquelyn: Okay and what grades did you teach?

Dr. Levine: I was a high school teacher and I taught high school French and English.

Jacquelyn: Did you ever teach any other levels or did you know right away that you were going to be a high school teacher?

Dr. Levine: No I always thought I would be a high school teacher and I did that for 12 years before I became an administrator.

Jacquelyn: And when you were an administrator was it at the high school level too?

Dr. Levine - I started at the middle school level and then the high school level and then eventually went on to district office.

Jacquelyn: We are talking about school culture and school climate and what about it is so important? Like to you, what do you think is really important for people to understand about school climate?

Dr. Levine: Right, well I think that school climate and academic achievement have this symbiotic relationship. So for each one to be outstanding at a school or district, you have to have the other. And students aren't going to make the academic progress if the school climate isn't positive for students. So when we say “school climate” I know that the priority looks at suspension and expulsion rate but we're talking about student physical health, mental health, we're talking about relationships. There's a lot of things that go into that suspension and expulsion rate that we don’t see. It just becomes a number on the dashboard, or a color, or a Harvey Ball, or the new one with the arrow I believe. You know, but all the elements that go into that school climate are really important.

Jacquelyn: How do you all use those [measurements] to help drive what you all do in your schools and what you do at the county to, for lack of a better word, attend to that symbiotic relationship between school climate and academics?

Dr. Levine: That's a great question. So in our division, which is Educational Services, we don't have any students, so we're not the student programs and services for the county. Our role is to support the districts and we have several units or more than several. We've got: Career Technical Education; we have College and Career Readiness; Educational Technology; Instructional Support; Center for Teacher Induction [Innovation]; Leadership Institute of Riverside County; Assessment, Accountability and Continuous Improvement; and my unit, Pupil and Administrative Services. So all of those units work for all our 23 districts in different areas. And as you know, the county office is responsible for approving district LCAPs [Local Control Accountability Plans], and we take that job very seriously. And we have teams in educational services of administrators, in fact all of us participate in reading and approving LCAPs, so from that, we can garner information about what each district is planning to do and from there were able to offer our services up—not just to the districts that have been in year one for assistance, differentiated assistance, but for all of them. So we really are lucky to be able to you know garner that from their LCAPs.

Jen: Okay, so I'm interested too in how you work, the Pupil and Administrative Services, how you work with the other kind of offices at the county. How do you work together to collaborate and, and kind of come together to target?

Dr. Levine: I'll give you a good example. With the Step-Up Grant the SUMS Grant [Scale-Up MTSS Statewide] that’s through Orange County for MTSS, we have two units: our unit, Pupil and Administrative Services, and Instructional Support. We have two administrators that are both the leads for that and so we are providing the cohort training for the grantees and technical assistance support to them. And we're working together. We also are providing our own trainings on MTSS, and some we do ourselves and others, for example, we're gonna bring Katie Novak in to present on Universal Design in the spring. So we work with the other units in in providing support to the districts.

Jacquelyn: That's nice. It sounds like in working together, you're coordinating it together so that you're kind of providing a well-rounded technical assistance rather than just this disjointed, you know, each person doing their own thing without paying attention to what others are doing.

Dr. Levine: Right, and we've worked really hard on eliminating those silos in our own division because we have a lot of units. And another example would be the Leadership Institute of Riverside County, which we affectionately call LIRC. They do a lot of training for administrators as well. They have a lot of professional networks for principals, for assistant principals—all different learning networks. And one of the things that comes out of LIRC is the African-American student group that the county has worked on, and we also have an African-American parent advisory group. And they offer some bias training, unconscious bias training, and we offer in our unit a training from Washington State University called “Navigating Difference.” And so we’re teaming up with them to work on plans for cultural proficiency out in districts that would like us to come out and do the training.

Jacquelyn: OK, that's really interesting. You said that you LIRC has an African-American student blueprint for action, is that right? That’s what it’s called? How did that come about?

Dr. Levine: Um, this is my fifth year with the county office, but I believe it started with who is now our Chief Academic Officer, Cynthia Glover Woods, and Hilma Griffin-Watson, the Executive Director of LIRC. And looking at the needs in the county, you know they saw there was a need when looking at disproportionality, test scores, college-going rate, that we really need to put some emphasis there. And along with our previous County Superintendent of Schools, Ken Young, they worked on the project for several years. And it's at our website if you would like to see, under LIRC, the blueprint. But now we've expanded that to having a parent group, an African-American parent leadership group for the county.

Jacquelyn: That's really amazing. Um yes, and I definitely want to say that and I think that those who are listening to this podcast would also be really interested in that work. Because it sounds to me when you were saying you were looking at the data you noticed some disproportionality—is that the right, is that how you say it Jen?

Jen: Disproportionality.

Jacquelyn: Okay a lot of people use that term but I’m not sure if everyone actually understands what that means. So when you were talking about your African-American students and disproportionality in terms of graduation rates, suspension rates—what is it that you mean? What exactly does it mean?

Dr. Levine: Right, so I'm going to I guess make up some numbers here. Okay let's say that in a school district, their African-American population is 10% of the of their demographics but when they look at their suspensions, they're being suspended at a rate—that 10% is being suspended at a rate of 40% so that would be a disproportionality, right? And so you know the districts are looking very closely at that because that's reflected in that their technical assistance eligibility. And in our county the groups seem to be American Indian, African American, special education and English learners. So those are the groups that districts are looking at rather carefully.

Jacquelyn: Interesting.

Jen: Wow so I think that's pretty powerful that you know you've gone—actually you've worked together to kind of drill down to which student groups are, you know, based on the data, you know having that disproportionality. What I find also through you know different conversations with other counties and districts is, you know once they see that the data—what do we do next? And so you know based on what we've kind of heard, you've had parent involvement. Do you have students as part of these groups too? Is there a student voice in here?

Dr. Levine: I’m not aware of that. There may be but I’m not in the know on that.

Jen: Yeah it seems like there's an almost like an action plan you know that's kind of come up for kind of drilling down to finding out: why? Which is really really powerful.

Jacquelyn: I agree with that and I definitely, I mean it sounds like with your African-American parent group as well. Having parent groups that are specifically supporting working with students where the disproportionality has been shown, I think that's actually a pretty interesting way to go. What led to that, do you know?

Dr. Levine: You know I'm not sure except for you know it was part of the plan. If you look at the plan, you'll be to see the goals and the actions and having the parent leadership group where you know so parents are empowered, go back to districts and work with other parents. Because that's really the best way. Parents like to hear news from other parents and get involved.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Levine: What I did want to mention is that one of our units is the Assessment, Accountability and Continuous Improvement Unit and they have three statisticians that work on the data for our districts. And we also have a memorandum of understanding with our districts where we have access to their student information systems and we can extract data from their systems to make them, to give them you know data in a good way that could be understood by all of their stakeholder groups.

Jacquelyn: Oh I love that. That's so amazing because I think one of the things that Jen and I were noticing with all this work around school climate was that understanding the data—like it's one thing to give assessments it's even one thing to give like a school climate survey, but then what do you do with it once you have it? Like before you can even determine an action you have to actually really understand what it means. And I think it's really pretty profound that a county office would hire statisticians just to attend to the data, so that they could support their districts.

Jen: Well, and also translating it, to you know, probably an easier way to digest for stakeholders. I think that's another piece. We kind of forget in the, you know education world, all our different acronyms. We love acronyms. And we love you know, different data elements. And you know sometimes even that simple like okay, you know this is what it means—like simple this data point means this, so kind of translating that for parents, students, and community members too.

Dr. Levine: And out of that out of that unit comes a network called RCAN, Riverside County Accountability Network, that meets every other month. So the people from the districts, our 23 districts that are accountable for the data and sometimes also different parts of the budget, related to data, come together for support and networking. It's really a good support for our districts.

Jacquelyn: You talked a lot about how districts are analyzing their data and that they were noticing that there were certain issues. But how did that translate into unconscious bias training and PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports)? And cultural trainings that focus on cultural competency. How did how did that come about? Where did you see that in the data?

Dr. Levine: Well, when I first came on board I had an opportunity to kind of have a clean slate and to work with the districts on what kind of support they needed. So when we started it was basically kind of a gallery walk and I've continued that every year—where I put up big stickies on the wall and I have topics. And then they know ahead of time that they need to look at their data and talk to their people at the next meeting. Because our network meets monthly, of child welfare and attendance staff and directors, they'll have an opportunity to write up the kind of support they need in their district. So basically, you know they walk around and they write things up on charts and the other districts will be like: “Oh yeah I think that's a training we need too.” And then they'll put a, you know, a little hash mark there. And so we get a very good read from the districts in kind of in a very simple way. Because sometimes people are too busy to fill out surveys. They get so many emails. So I find that a simple exercise like that when they're in the room is much easier. And then myself and my administrators in my unit, we put those charts up in a work session and we see: Who do we know? What have we seen that we can bring this training? Sometimes we do the training ourselves you know. We're trained and have trainers in different areas like Olweus Bullying Prevention, navigating difference, youth mental health first aid, restorative practices. My people are all trained up in that. PBIS. Other trainings, we look at when we go to conferences. For example, HASWA (Health and Safety at Work Act) or Every Child Counts by ACSA (the Association of California School Administrators), or the state schools conference. And we go to sessions and then bring the trainers back.

Jacquelyn: Would you say that, like if I could say to you: “Wow, I think it's really wonderful that this county has, that Riverside County has focused in and drilled down enough to know which student groups are experiencing disproportionality. To do that in such a way that we need to take these specific actions then follow up on those specific actions and have all of this training and support that we can provide to our schools to help them improve.” If I were to tell you that I think that that's a success, would you say “yes” or “no” and why?

Dr. Levine: I would say thank you because the accountability system is so new and we're kind of sometimes building the airplane as it as its flying. You know I believe we'll be tinkering with it and tweaking it and improving it every year with what we do as we as we learn more. And you know there's been changes every year in things like the template and you know waiting for the indicators. For example you know chronic absenteeism, we only had the one year of data on Dataquest. So the next dashboard will be the first time we'll see you know that data with the two years and so every year will be a little different. So I think we're working towards success and I think every year we will put a different spin on it in a good way and be working in the right direction.

Jacquelyn: Well that's continuous improvement in action right there.

Jen: Definitely

Jacquelyn: You basically just summed it up. We're doing something that’s working pretty well, but we can always get better, and we will always get better and we'll continue to strive to do that year after year. I think that's amazing. If you are using Dashboard data to tell you okay this is how our schools have scored in dashboard and LCAP data, how our schools have shown growth or success in school climate or chronic absenteeism like you just mentioned—how do you then, how do you measure success in terms of the trainings that you're offering or the assistance that you're providing? How do you know that that is a success? What do you look for from your attendees? What do you look for from all the people who work with you to see how are we measuring our own success in providing services?

Dr. Levine: Yeah so a couple of things: We have our own evaluation form at the end of the training that we look at and we take seriously. And then what's interesting is the amount of signups will really tell us if the topic is really needed, if people have an interest. For example, every year I have a records training, which is really important. And this year we had a limit of 60 people but we actually had 93 attend because there were so many people who wanted to come. And if you look at school climate, I mean that records piece is really important as far as who can see records, things about transcripts, who has access. And so now I know for next year I need to plan two records workshops because there's a big demand. And so we look at those sign ups, but it seems that people really like our training in my unit. And it looks like the other units their training is hopping as well. Every unit provides trainings so you know mine is only a small piece of the pizza pie but we do take the evaluation seriously. And we, for example, now it's just September. So if a prep nurse came to me and said “you know we were talking at our districts and we could really use a training,” in whatever the area is, and we see that you don't have one on that topic for this year, I'll try to find one. And I’ll bring it to the county office. We really don't have any limits which I really like. We can we can bring in or provide whatever they need.

Jen: I mean I keep saying it, but it's powerful you know, what you're doing, what you built.

Dr. Levine: Yes, well I'm just, like I said I'm just a small piece of it but the office we have a pledge. And that's: “All students will graduate high school with the skills for college and the workforce.” And so we’re very serious about that and every employee in this county office is focused on that pledge. And so you know no matter what your position is you know you're supporting the over 430,000 students in Riverside County. We're large.

Jacquelyn: Wow. At the county in your work is there something that kind of stands out to you that you think others should know about [and] why your work is important and how you're helping to support these schools with their school climate?

Dr. Levine: Well I think it's important that we provide this support. I'm not sure that in my years of teaching, and I've taught in three states, that I’ve seen the support in other places that Riverside County Office of Education gives, And so the fact that we can affect change in so many students, and if we see an area that has a gap for us, then we're willing to fill it in. For example the College and Career-Readiness Unit is a new unit this year, working on things like A-G audits and graduation rates, and helping districts with their grading policies—things that we saw we were missing support for our districts in that area. And our chief academic officer created that. As well as we had the accountability people but they were in a separate unit and so now they're separate unit on their own. So when we see a gap, we fill it in so we could provide more support to the districts.

Jacquelyn : Do you have any thoughts about that?

Jen: Just well, I think, you know going back to it: There's a lot of the relationship building you know, among the county and the districts and among the community. And you know there's a lot of parent involvement involved in that too. And I think we forget about that you know? We see the number and we don't really drill down into that individual student group. And just you know, making sure that continuous quality improvement does take time and that it's not overnight. So it takes a lot of resources too, other resources to support, so I think you know, it really it's really powerful. And I appreciate all the different strategies that you shared too. You know I mean getting the pulse you know with the gallery walks. And trying to find strategies in order to get the information and involvement that you need to support the districts. Knowing that you know there are a lot of other things going on too. You know, there's daily survival and I think it’s sometimes not always on the radar. So you know we just appreciate all the strategies and also your connection to education and school climate.

Dr. Levine: Thank you, and I would offer for any county office or and district, if you have some ideas and think they could help us, or if they'd like to visit us here and see some of the things we do, the invitation is open. Just give us a call and we’d be happy to arrange that.

Jacquelyn: That's wonderful. Actually, to everyone who's listening, you know if you are interested in understanding more about the Riverside County Office of Education and Dr. Levine's work, the invitation is open. Please reach out. Is there any other advice that you'd want to give to County offices of Education who are supporting their school districts, especially around this area of school climate—or any LCFF priority for that matter?

Dr. Levine: Right, I would [say] every county office functions differently, you know, and every district is different, has a different culture and climate. But as much support as any county office can give to their districts I think is really important and we should try to do as much as possible.

Jacquelyn: Ok, and then, actually before I let you go, I actually, there was one thing you said that I'm just burning. I have to know. You said “We don't have any limits.” Right? You were saying “If I know a training is missing I'm gonna go out and find it. Or, if it's gonna cost a lot to train all the districts we will learn it, bring in a trainer, or train ourselves.” What does it mean to work without limits?

Dr. Levine: Um, well I'm sure there are limits but I haven't seen one. Basically we're encouraged here to know what our pledge is, our mission and our vision. And you know the parameters are basically give the districts the support that they need. And so I haven't run into any roadblocks since I've been here in terms of providing things for districts and I really appreciate that. We all in our separate units, under the direction of the Chief Academic Officer, are able to provide the trainings and things like that in collaboration with each other, and I think it’s wonderful.

Jacquelyn: I think so too.

Jen: That is great.

Jacquelyn: But I suspect that if we were to drill down even more that you probably also approach it with this idea that “I'm gonna figure out how to get it done even if there was some sort of obstacle.” You make it sound easy but it don't think that it really is.

Dr. Levine: Well let's just say I do the best I can.

Jacquelyn: Well thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us today, for being willing to do this.

Dr. Levine: You're welcome. Thank you.

[Music plays]

Jacquelyn: You're listening to Priority X

Jen: On CDE Ed Talks.

[End of Podcast Episode 1]

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Last Reviewed: Monday, December 2, 2019
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