A Caring School Community: Connecting to School (page 4)
The ideas described in the preceding sections represent ways that students can forge bonds with their school. The value of connectedness in efforts to ensure safe schools for all students cannot be stressed too much. Connectedness has become the focus for considerable attention by educators, psychologists, and researchers in recent years. Bender (1999, p. 4) maintains that connectedness represents "the degree to which students are positively involved emotionally, academically, and socially with others in the school and/or home environment."
In one of the largest studies of adolescent health ever conducted in the United States, researchers interviewed more than 11,000 students, as well as parents and teachers, concerning their relationships (Resnick et al., 1997). Students who were more emotionally connected to their school were less likely to be involved in school violence. Connectedness to school and to parents was found to predict positive social behaviors in young people. In A Guide to Safe Schools (1998, p. 8) the U.S. Department of Education reported on research that indicates
…when children have a positive, meaningful connection to an adult—whether it be at home, in school, or in the community—the potential for violence is reduced significantly.
The key to connectedness is relationship. There simply is no substitute for constructive relationships between students and staff members and between students and their classmates. Unfortunately, there is no shortcut to building constructive relationships. They require time. Engagement in structured and meaningful activities can provide a solid basis for forming relationships. In some cases these activities may involve academic work, such as class projects, field trips, and cooperative learning activities. In other cases the activities entail extracurricular endeavors, including athletic teams, school clubs, theatrical productions, music groups, and school publications. A longitudinal study of 1,800 sixth graders from Michigan has provided convincing evidence that young people who participate in extracurricular activities generally do better academically, have lower rates of truancy, and feel a stronger attachment to school (Galley, 2000).
In A Tribe Apart, Hersch (1998, p. 78) noted that the number of students involved in school activities has shrunk dramatically in recent years. Whether this decline has resulted from lack of interest by young people, problems related to after-school transportation, or failure on the part of schools to provide interesting activities is unclear. What is clear is the fact that students who participate in school activities are less likely to cause problems or get into serious trouble. If they do encounter problems, their desire to participate in extracurricular activities often provides the incentive needed to overcome adversity.
In the wake of the Columbine High School tragedy, one suburban Virginia high school realized that it, too, could experience such violence at the hands of disaffected teenagers. Adopting the motto "A School Where Everybody Matters," the high school staff brainstormed various ways to reduce feelings of isolation and alienation among students. One effort involved the creation of a Gothic Club for the students who identified with nonconformist dress, music, and other countercultural symbols. Another Virginia high school, in an effort to promote connectedness for a diverse student body, initiated a campaign to involve every student in at least one extracurricular activity. A special effort was made to develop opportunities for students who held jobs or lacked after-school transportation.
It is tempting to think that opportunities for students to participate in school activities would be greater in larger schools. One classic study (Barker & Gump, 1964) found that larger schools did offer more activities, but that a greater percentage of students participated in school activities in smaller schools. Apparently, in larger schools only the "stars" earn places on teams and in plays and other productions, but in smaller schools every student who wants to participate is needed.
One important variable for caring school communities is school size. The Safe School Study Report to Congress (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1978, p. 13) found that school size was linked to student anonymity and alienation, factors that in turn were associated with school crime. The report called for efforts to "personalize" schools by lowering teacher–student ratios and increasing the amount of continuous class time that teachers spend with groups of students.
It is much easier to promote constructive relationships and connectedness in small schools. How small should schools be? Although it is difficult to pinpoint a precise number, Raywid and Oshiyama (2000, p. 446) offer the following guidelines:
Small enough so that people can know one another. Small enough so that individuals are missed when they are absent. Small enough so that the participation of all students is needed. Small enough to permit considerable overlap in the rosters from one class to another.
Even large schools can promote connectedness by using several proven strategies. Creating teams of teachers who work with the same group of students for a large portion of the school day is one approach that has been shown to be particularly effective in many middle schools. Teacher advisory programs that call for every teacher to meet periodically with the same group of students is another way to forge constructive relationships as well as encourage students to share their concerns in a safe setting. Looping represents a third strategy. When a teacher "loops," he moves with his students to the next grade, thereby providing an opportunity to cultivate stronger bonds with them. Looping is growing in popularity in elementary schools, but it also has the potential to ease the transition between schools. For example, a team of four eighth-grade teachers representing the four core academic subjects might move with their students to the ninth grade in the local high school, then "loop" back to the middle school to pick up another group of eighth graders.
Mentoring provides yet another way to promote caring relationships between students and adults. Mentors can be college students, employees from a school's business partner, senior citizens from a local retirement community, or parent volunteers. Mentors meet on a regular basis, either during or after school, with the students to whom they are assigned. Sometimes mentor and student may tackle academic work, and at other times they may attend a special event or just chat. Mentoring programs have proven to be effective ways to foster resilience in at-risk students (Clinton & Miles, 1999).
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