By Nicholas von Wettberg
The YouthTruth Student Survey, and its role in climate assessment, was the subject of an agenda item at the Davis School Board meeting on Thursday night.
Inside Community Chambers, Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) staff members presented trustees with a school climate update, which included results and responses of the YouthTruth Survey, along with an assessment of its overall value, in comparison with the bi-annual California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS).
The YouthTruth Survey complies with Strategy 3 Action D and Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) Goal 6, in which the district, according to the 2015-16 Strategic Plan Annual Report, must “conduct a district-wide climate assessment to obtain base line climate data. The school climate tool will have particular focus on cultural attributes that correlate to success of student groups identified in the LCAP.”
Administered to DJUSD students for the first time in October 2015, specifics of the YouthTruth Survey were distributed across the district during the middle part of last school year.
Before delivering the presentation, Associate Superintendent Matt Best clarified to the board that “student perception data is different than student achievement data in that we are measuring student’s perceptions about particular things at a particular time on campus, which gives us data about students’ perceiving (of) those particular things.”
Best added that the district has focused on the process of gathering the data, analyzing it, then working together with site leaders for eventual action.
DJUSD Climate Coordinator Kate Snow went through some of the understandings behind defining the term “school climate.”
Snow said that the base of understanding that they (the district) work from is knowing that a climate gap exists in Davis, especially in terms of connectedness when broken down by race and ethnicity.
“So that we know that our White and Asian students feel more connected to somebody on campus, usually an adult on campus than are Hispanic/Latino students,” Snow said, referencing a graph included in the update report on connectedness by ethnicity. “We don’t have a big enough number of African-American students for that number to be included in this graph, but that’s why you don’t see them there.”
As for some of the differences between the two surveys, Snow pointed out that the YouthTruth is administered yearly and covers more territory, testing students in grades 3-12.
The district is in the middle of a three-year deal with the national nonprofit, at a rate of $23,000 per administration.
Snow explained that, while the two surveys do contain corresponding questions, the overlap is looked at as complementary.
“Really, for us as a district, what matters about the difference in them is how we use them,” she said.
A bit later on, Snow said that, because of their ability to receive the data, analyze it, and respond, the YouthTruth Survey is “easier for sites to digest and easier for sites to really dig in to the nuance and the detail, and to raise the questions that will help them understand what’s going on at their sites.”
Included in the report was a timeline of events, which Snow said was more a “cycle” than anything.
Once the results were released, in December 2015, staff from YouthTruth visited the district in an effort, Snow said, “to help look at those numbers and help people figure out how to read this new version of data that we hadn’t ever looked at before.”
Leaders returned to their sites, where, from January to March, they presented and processed the new data dialogue, eventually developing what Snow called “potential responses and ways to change things or to address issues that rose to their attention.”
Snow provided an example of the response process.
She said that, at a recent retreat, one question (a junior high and high school version) from the secondary survey was posed to department leaders, who were asked to “look in small groups at the data around the question of things that get in the way of learning.”
The data was analyzed, as a whole, then broken down to sub-groups which included gender, school, the types of grades they receive (mostly), race and ethnicity, and free and reduced lunch status.
”People had a chance to just think about what those numbers meant using the particular sub-groups, but at the same time to also think about what lenses they brought to the consideration of this particular sub-group. So how do we think about students on free lunch and how do we perceive them as answering this question? And what are our biases, what comes in when we look at students just in this one question?”
Snow added: “So that we can begin to really paint a multi-colored fine pixilated picture of what’s happening with our students and that’s really a valuable thing about YouthTruth because it’s easy to engage at that level on these kinds of questions.”
Best said that, when the data is looked at on a macro level, there are a lot of positives, but that is not the case for the micro aspect (sub-groups & sites).
Before entertaining questions, Superintendent John Bowes asked to hear about “any tools that came with the YouthTruth results to help slice the data and provide different levels of analysis.”
According to Best, because the YouthTruth is a web-based tool, principals are able to go to the site and narrow down their searches to exact sub-groups.
Trustee Susan Lovenburg opened up the questions and comments portion, agreeing with a comment made earlier by Snow that school climate is the most appropriate topic to address.
Even with the access to the data provided, which was referred to as “voluminous,” Lovenburg explained that she was unable to locate any key high-level findings, district-wide.
“My own personal view is that climate is one of the most important ways that we can help close the opportunity gap and it was a significant investment in not just dollars but time on the district resources for the survey, so I want to make sure that we get the full utility out of it,” Lovenburg said.
Snow believes that the data obtained via the survey makes it well worth the cost, notably that “the handling ability of it, it’s the fact that it engaged our sites in a way that, try as we have, it has been hard because of the format for Healthy Kids. It’s been hard to deliver them on a site basis.”
Trustee Alan Fernandes shared in Lovenburg’s feelings on the omission of key findings.
“Is there a plan to compare what we did to the national or the region?” Fernandes asked.
Best responded, citing three metrics – national comparisons, statewide with Healthy California, and then YouthTruth.
In regard to the timing, Fernandes wanted to know how big a sense of urgency there was to fix any of the recognizable areas of concern.
“What are we doing?” he asked. “What do others that employ the tools of YouthTruth and Healthy Kids do in that instance or are we all as districts just kind of cyclically doing this on the same timeline? Because it seems to me that in the life of a school-age kid a year is forever.”
Snow said that she appreciated the big-picture approach on school climate taken by Fernandes.
“This gives us a concrete shared conversation space to work in and around concrete data points. But our educators, that’s how they do their best work, is by thinking and adapting all of the time and so I certainly would not want to rely on only having a survey, and only living by a timeline as a way to evolve climate, but when you see the way climate committees work, for instance, and there comes a need for more information,” Snow said.
Board member Barbara Archer said that she’s looking for key findings that are actionable, considering the chunk of money and time that has been invested.
“We really need to have a justification for this (survey),” Archer said. “One thing that would have been helpful to me is a sample of the granular data. What can you see when you look at YouthTruth? What is the difference really between YouthTruth and California Healthy Kids?”
Agreeing to take up the offer and come down to the district office and look at the data, Archer expressed concern over the time the data has sat and would need to know what the board could do with it for future use.
Board President Madhavi Sunder said she recently spent over an hour with Matt and Kate using the tool to look at specific schools.
“To follow up on Barbara’s point, specifically here, can you guys answer for us, is this more of a tool that’s not really amenable to the high-level board level, in terms of what are the three biggest problems in our district or the five biggest problems, but it is more of a tool for those site councils, for those Principals who are looking at okay, exactly, this problem in the fourth grade, this problem around breakfast, as you’re saying?”
Sunder added: “It seemed in my hour or more spent with them it seemed to me its just not a tool that is amenable to that big level, you know, five takeaways. Is that correct?”
Snow believes that, because of the Healthy Kids survey, data obtained from YouthTruth can be used for site granularity and site investment and site information.
Archer thought it would be a good idea if the board were briefed, so to speak, on the top three issues at each campus.