UNION, NJ — Cleanliness, quality of extracurricular activities and student behavior all need improvement, according to the results of a districtwide survey of students, parents and staff in the township’s schools.
The Culture and Climate survey was distributed to four groups — school staff, elementary students, middle-high school students and parents — at the end of September with slightly varying questioned catered to its specific group. The results were presented to the school board at its Jan. 15 meeting.
District officials were hoping those surveyed would respond to 70 percent of affirmative statements with “agree” or “strongly agree” with but instead the district received an overwhelming number of neutral responses.
“The difference between a very successful school district and a failing school district is that neutral area and whether or not you can get them to believe what you’re doing or go the other way,” Craig Wojcik, the district’s assistant director of technology, said in his presentation to the board.
The survey was broken down into statements about the district, classroom atmosphere and learning techniques, allowing participants to respond on a scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”
One question that fell short of the district’s desired 70 percent positive response rate was from the parents survey.
“I’m satisfied with the extra curricular activities at my child’s school” was affirmed by less than half of parents, with about a 40 percent of responses beinig neutral and a little more than 10 percent negative.
“We want a majority of parents to agree with what we’re doing here, so that neutral area is what we need to focus on,” Wojcik said.
About 30 percent of students in the middle and high school indicated dissatisfaction with the cleanliness of their schools.
Something that was alarming to Wojcik from the elementary school survey — with answers that ranged from “no” and “sometimes” to “maybe” — came in response to the statement “most students in my school are well-behaved and treat each other with respect.” A majority of students chose “sometimes.”
“We don’t want any of these students to be making these statements,” Wojcik said. “We want to make sure that everyone is being heard.”
“These neutral pieces say that we’re not consistent,” Assistant Superintendent Annie Moses said at the meeting.
She told the board that the survey is important to help move the district forward.
“This is just the beginning of how we’re incorporating the community, the children, the parents and all invested stakeholders because we want everyone to see what’s going on and to have an input on how to move the district forward,” Moses said.
All district schools began focusing on social and emotional learning at the beginning of the school year, according to Wojcik. Social and emotional learning is a process that helps children cultivate essential life skills, including awareness of one’s own emotions, fostering respect and care for others, establishing strong relationships, making ethical and responsible decisions and handling adversity constructively. Such skills will help address concerns with the elementary school, according to Wojcik. He also highlighted Union High School’s “Future Ready Initiative,” which involves teachers and students meeting to make changes within the school.
“Initiatives such as these are already being implemented and will help us move forward,” he said.
Wojcik said the district, comprised of more than 7,000 students, received approximately 2,500 responses to the survey and he was expecting more. About 600 parents participated in the survey.
“Those numbers are not ideal for us,” he said. “We have plans to bring in more engagement.”
The survey was distributed via email on a new platform; in previous years it was posted on the district’s website.
Parents were sent the survey via email to the address listed on the Genesis access portal; district emails were used for staff and students in grades six through 12; and elementary students took the survey during their computer classes.
“Did we consider parents who don’t have access to the internet?” board member Kalish Morgan asked at the meeting.
She suggested to Wojcik that there should be a designated laptop at meetings and school functions so that parents can take the survey through the district website.
“When you just put (the survey) on the website, anyone can do it, like some people with no concern or people can do it just because. We want to be very authentic with the data that we’re getting because it will help us to improve if we have concerns, and to sustain the positive aspects,” Moses said in reply to Morgan.
Moses said parents can come use the schools’ computers or contact her office to take a paper survey, if necessary.
Wojcik said the highest participation rates came from the elementary students and that, for the next survey, the district plans to have the middle and high school students take the survey in class.
“The in-class survey would help us get the most accurate data,” he said.
The New Jersey Department of Education, along with the Bloustein Center for Survey Research at Rutgers, created and distributed the New Jersey School Climate Survey in 2012.
Schools are encouraged but not required to use the NJSCS tools, and the materials are provided as a service to help them understand and improve local safe and supportive conditions for learning, according to the state Department of Education’s website.
The district will distribute another survey at the end of the school year in June.
“This survey is used as a benchmark to see what progress we’re making as we move forward,” Wojcik explained. “This data is meant to guide us as a district.”
The survey was offered in multiple languages, including Spanish and Creole.