Findings of newly released climate survey of Westport public schools’ students, staff and parents.

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Nearly all the arrows are pointing up on a just-released survey of climate and culture survey at Westport’s public schools, but some Board of Education members want to see bigger gains.

“The numbers still looked low, even though they are up,” board Secretary Neil Phillips said in response to survey results of climate at the schools, conducted last spring of students, staff and parents. It was discussed by the board at its meeting last week.

Phillips found one data point particularly sobering, which  shows only 52 percent of student responses in grades 6 through 12 were favorable when asked how often teachers seem excited to be teaching their classes.

He confessed to not knowing just what the desired percentages should be.

Every two years, the state requires a school climate survey. The district supplements that during off years with an abbreviated survey in targeted areas.

Last spring the questions focused on belonging and school climate, two areas in which the district is heavily invested.

While nearly all the indicators are pointing in the right direction, Assistant Supt. Mike Rizzo cautioned against the school community becoming too attached to particular data points.

“They help inform efforts, but don’t entirely assess our performance in these areas,” Rizzo said.

Survey snapshot

The survey reflects the views of 3,098 Westport students, 645 staff members and 1,415 families last May. Participation rose by 350 families over the last time the survey was administered.

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, Valerie Babich, at left, director of psychological services for the school district, along with Westport school principals, presented details of the district’s 2023 climate survey. / Photo by Linda Conner Lambeck

Asked about school climate, 72 percent of parents or family members in 2023 gave it a thumbs up, a three percent boost from 2022. Some 64 percent of family members say the school values the diversity of their children’s backgrounds — a five percent boost from the previous year — and 75 percent say the school system is fair in evaluating their children, a nine percent boost.

Among teachers, 65 percent say there is a positive work environment in their schools, a 14 percent boost from 2022.

Among students, 73 percent of third through fifth graders say people at their school understand them as a person — a four percent boost from the previous survey. And 82 percent of those same elementary students say there is positive energy in their school, a one percent boost.

Throughout the survey, students in grades 6 through 12 were the hardest markers.

In addition to 52 percent saying they felt their teachers seem excited to be teaching their classes — a four percent boost from the previous year — just 49 percent gave their school good marks for overall climate — a two percent boost from the previous year. Another 66 percent of those students say they feel they belong at their school. That was 5 percent higher than students from the previous year.

The one data point that remained flat, among third- through fifth-graders, was on overall climate with 69 percent responding positively.

Valerie Babich, director of psychological services for the district, said the increases, in general, were lower at the elementary level, because the starting numbers tend to be higher.

The school board was told the data comprise one method used to gauge if district efforts to make students feel a sense of belonging are taking hold.

There is more work to be done, but the district is off to a good start, the board was told.

At the elementary level, work is being done to create consistent expectations across the schools and giving students a voice in school policies.

At the middle schools, there are more field trips at all three grade levels, a student advisory board has been created and school-wide spirit days are more frequent.

At Staples High School, a student council has been created, there was a freshmen-only morning on the first day of school, and lessons are being offered in self-awareness and leadership.

This year, Staples has a record 120 clubs students can join, Principal Stafford Thomas told the board.

At each level, staffs are getting training in areas of diversity and ways to promote positive behaviors in school. Families are getting more communication in the form of newsletters, learning opportunities and invitations to visit schools — something not allowed during the pandemic.

Board reactions

Phillips said he was happy to see 64 percent of families  — two-thirds of those responding — appear to value and support the work the district is doing in the area of diversity.

Board member Dorie Hordon questioned the relevancy of some responses, particularly as compared to 2022, when COVID concerns still kept some students out of the classroom some of the time.

“I think it’s good to do these surveys, but I … think it’s one piece of info,” she said.

Hordon also said she understands the need to focus on student wellbeing, but doesn’t want it to take away from academics.

“I want to make sure we stay on that as well,” Hordon said. “It is an important piece of school.”

Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice said the district’s work to bolster social and emotional wellbeing is in the service of learning. The district, he said, spends most of its dollars on academic instruction, with not only classroom teachers, but full-time literacy coaches, as well as math and science coaches.

“That is reassuring to hear,” said Hordon. “It is important for parents to know that we still have the eye on the ball, that academics is the priority, in addition to social and emotional wellbeing.”

Hordon asked the administration to provide a breakdown of the amount spent on teacher professional development by subject area. The district keeps that information, she was told.

As far as students’ perception of how excited teachers are to be teaching their classes, board member Robert Harrington said he suspects there is something of a disconnect.

“I have to think more than 52 percent of teachers think they are excited when teaching,” Harrington said.

Harrington called the results an opportunity for the district to do better.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.