The School Climate Transformation Project at Rutgers is helping schools improve conditions for teaching and learning by using technology to facilitate data-guided decision making.

School climate – the quality and character of school life – is an essential element to student learning and well-being. Failure to provide a safe, inclusive school climate can negatively impact student behaviors, academic performance and emotional security.

But how can schools improve the experience of students while also attending to the experiences of staff, parents and caregivers?

Alicia Raia-Hawrylak, co-project manager of the School Climate Transformation Project (SCTP) at the Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, has worked with her team to empower school and district staff to use data to guide school climate improvement.

Alongside the New Jersey Department of Education, the SCTP revised and validated the New Jersey School Climate Information (NJ SCI) Survey and created the NJ SCI Platform, a free online application that administers the surveys and guides school leaders in strategic planning.

Raia-Hawrylak discusses how the NJ SCI Platform is helping make schools and classrooms across the state more welcoming.

What is “school climate” and why is a positive school climate so important to student success?
School climate represents how it feels to be a member of the school community and to walk in the school building each day to teach and learn, which can vary given a person’s background and experiences, the time of year and current events. It encompasses the conditions needed for successful teaching and learning, and for someone to feel safe and valued in a school.

Other key aspects of school climate include the quality of relationships and interactions with others and the level of engagement and involvement among students. Research has consistently shown that a positive school climate fosters the physical, psychological, social and emotional well-being of students and staff and contributes to higher levels of academic achievement.

What is the New Jersey School Climate Improvement Survey and Platform?
The NJ SCI Survey enables students, staff, parents and caregivers to anonymously share their perceptions pertaining to research-based domains of school climate. It is administered on the NJ SCI Platform, helps schools assess school climate and supports district- and school-level improvement efforts.

Results from the NJ SCI Survey help school staff identify areas of improvement and generate strategies for addressing them, with guidance from platform-generated insights and recommendations.

The NJ SCI Survey was released in early 2023 after a large research study found it to be a valid and reliable school climate instrument. It is available in 33 languages to be responsive to the diversity of our state and over 130 New Jersey school districts have signed up to use the platform so far.

How does the School Climate Change Process work?
The NJ SCI Platform is designed to guide a school climate leadership team through the steps of the School Climate Change Process (SCCP), which includes development and implementation of a comprehensive school climate improvement plan.

Is the NJ SCI Survey a new tool? What are the benefits to using it?
School climate measurement isn't a new concept. It's something that our project has supported in New Jersey schools for many years using other instruments.

What is new is the ease with which schools can collect data, how the survey is tailored to the needs and priorities of NJ schools, and the automation of some consultative supports via the platform. With just a few clicks, users have access to survey links, sample communication templates (such as scripts to read to students) and notification templates for parents and caregivers, which allow them to preview their child’s survey.

Platform users are provided access to guidance materials, tutorials, live network events to help facilitate the school climate change process, on-demand technical assistance and first-come, first-served consultation with an expert from our team.

Best of all, the NJ SCI Survey and Platform are free for use in public K-12 districts with approval from the superintendent.

I discussed these and other benefits on a recent podcast with the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers.

We’ve heard a lot about post-COVID challenges. Are these tools useful in navigating some of those concerns?
Absolutely. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, NJ SCI Survey data and disciplinary data highlighted concerns about student interpersonal behaviors. Data in the platform can be used to recommend appropriate schoolwide interventions to support positive behaviors. Another concern following the pandemic is teacher burnout and turnover. School staff can use the NJ SCI Survey to collect data and generate reports about perceived leadership support, collegial relationships among staff and the delivery of resources necessary to best support teachers in today’s environment. Then, the platform provides recommended strategies to improve conditions in these areas.

One area of school climate that gets a lot of attention is bullying. How does the NJ SCI Survey measure and address this issue?
Prior surveys in New Jersey used the word “bullying” and looked at negative student interpersonal behavior through that lens. The term itself carries certain definitional requirements, especially in New Jersey, which has been a national leader in addressing harassment, intimidation and bullying.

We know from research that beyond the strict definition of bullying, there are a lot of other interpersonal behaviors that students engage in that are still a problem and distract from learning. We wanted our survey to be able to capture those and to give schools a sense of the common types of negative behaviors that may not meet the definition of bullying. The items in this survey also help identify what students perceive to be the common characteristics, or reasons for different forms of teasing or other forms of aggression, with the goal of informing more targeted intervention protocols.

The NJ SCI Survey and results from this domain were presented at the World Anti-Bullying Forum conference in October 2023, highlighting how the work in New Jersey can inform measurement and practice all over the world.