Commentary

Key to improving student progress: Encourage a sense of belonging

January 3, 2024 5:30 am

Gaps among students in achievement and attitude stem in part from students feeling as if they don't belong in their school. (U.S. Department of Education/Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0)

The public school system in Shaker Heights, a suburban city southeast of Cleveland, is something of a model for Oregon. It has one of the most racially integrated, as well as well-funded and thoughtfully organized, public school systems in the nation.

It was renowned for breaking racial barriers early in the ’60s and has continued to push new and innovative efforts since.  It is not a problem-free district, and in some ways is plagued by issues that are also found in Oregon.

The book Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity by Laura Meckler, details the many issues still bedeviling students, teachers, administrators and parents. Gaps among various groups in achievement and attitude stay stubbornly pervasive and in too many cases, Meckler remarks, “Teachers no longer teach; students no longer learn.” 

Her quest to learn why this is happening has unearthed many prospective answers, but one is prominent and bookended her account: Too many students don’t feel as if they really belong in their school.

Or, as she said in an interview, “One of my takeaways was that a lot of this comes back to a sense of belonging, and whether we are creating spaces where students and parents really feel like it is their place, their space.”

That takes us to the new Oregon Statewide Report Card on schools, released Nov. 30. 

Signed by Williams, who officially became director of the Oregon Department of Education in September, it recounts the usual list of serious problems and some that seem to be more concerns than issues, such as declining numbers of students in many places. 

She said, “At the same time, Oregon school districts lean into ways to improve the learning conditions for students, they have faced enormous challenges from declining enrollment to chronic absenteeism as well as social and political tensions. In addition, leadership turnover continues to occur as many of Oregon’s 197 school districts have new superintendents.”

In one key paragraph, Williams said: “Moving forward I’m focused on three areas that are central to student success: early literacy, sense of belonging, accountability.”

The middle one jumps out. After all, while accountability is important, it can – and often has – descend swiftly into a routine of teaching to the test, and at best highlights but does not solve problems. Early literacy is obviously critical, but the question of addressing it remains. 

The sense of belonging underlies some of the key items in the rest of the report. 

Some of this is reflected in the most basic of school measurements: Student attendance. Average daily attendance in Oregon is “the annual average of daily student attendance for students residing within the district. It is collected by the federal government and is used as the basis for funding in some states, but not in Oregon.”

Still, the numbers developed by the state are starkly meaningful. In the 2018-19 school year attendance was 573,705, while in 2022-23 it fell to 546,477. Other measures of students, such as raw registration numbers and figures parsed in various ways, showed a similar decline. 

The pandemic and emphasis on distance learning may have affected some of this, as it almost certainly did in the case of high school dropouts. The report said that student dropout rates “were impacted by the pandemic and the shift to distance learning for all in the spring of 2020.” 

Exact numbers of dropouts have become hard to measure over time since the criteria for measuring has changed. The report said, “In 2019-20 and 2020-21… districts were instructed not to drop students from enrollment without confirmation of a transfer to a different educational setting. This reduced the number of dropouts reported for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Many students who otherwise would have been reported as dropouts in these years were reported when districts were allowed to drop students from their enrollment in 2021-22. As a result, data from 2019-20 and 2020-21 reflect an undercount in dropouts, and data from 2021-22 reflect an over count.”

Another way of putting it: There’s been a recent loss of consistency of determining when schools and students have lost connection. 

Other measures suggest that subsets of students who may not feel a sense of belonging to the school may be experiencing diminished results there. 

The report noted in the area of discipline, for example, that “during the 2022-23 school year, 6.8 percent of Oregon students experienced disciplinary incidents. Across race/ethnicity, students from historically underserved groups were disciplined more often than other students, with Black/African American students and American Indian/Alaska Native students disciplined most often, 13.2% and 11.2%, respectively). Students in Special Education and students federally identified as economically disadvantaged were also disciplined more often than other groups.”

Diminished results were found too among students who experienced residential insecurity or outright homelessness. The study said the four-year graduation rate for all students in 2022-23 was 81.3%, but for those described as houseless, it was 58.6%.

The problems of schools often seem a many headed hydra, encouraging us to keep looking for answers all over the place. 

Not all of the answers will come from dollars, statistical analysis and abstract policies, though. Some may be more personal. They may come from giving more students the sense that they have a welcoming place in their school. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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