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How A Happy School Can Help Students Succeed

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LA Johnson, NPR

Every day at Weiner Elementary School starts with a dance party, usually to Best Day of My Life by American Authors — and that's before the 7:50 a.m. bell even rings.

Then comes the morning assembly, where all 121 students and the staff gather for 20 minutes in the cafeteria of the school in Weiner, Ark. They sing songs and learn about an artist, a musician and an international city of the week.

They celebrate birthdays. A lucky student is crowned Student of the Day. And Pam Hogue makes it her goal to be an educator instead of a principal.

That assembly — and the many other things this school does to create a sense of community and happiness — is part of what experts call school climate.

"It's a feeling in a building," Hogue explains. "When you walk in here, it just feels right. It looks like a place where learning is happening."

And, like a feeling, school climate is hard to define, difficult to measure and can swing positive or negative.

A study published in the Review of Educational Research today suggests that school climate is something educators and communities should prioritize — especially as a way to bridge the elusive achievement gap. The authors analyzed more than 15 years of research on schools worldwide, and found that positive school climate had a significant impact on academics.

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And here's the biggest takeaway: There's no link between school climate and socioeconomic status. In other words, there are plenty of happy schools in low-income neighborhoods, too.

"Obviously you need to have a great math teacher that can teach math, but those social and emotional connections really help in the academic area too," says Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the study. "That creates a lot of opportunities for the low-income schools," by giving reformers more tools to think about, he says.

When Pam Hogue took over as Weiner Elementary's principal three years ago, tardiness was a problem. Enrollment was down. The community was losing faith in its public schools.

Weiner is a rural town with a population of less than 700. A majority of the kids come from farming families — soybeans and rice, mostly — and more than 99 percent receive free and reduced-price lunch.

Hogue sat down with a faculty team to envision the school they wanted — a school with the tagline "A great place to be a kid."

Now, students are rarely late (no one wants to miss out on that assembly). Average attendance is 99.93 percent this year. And most importantly, Hogue says, people in the school — students and staff — are happy.

This idea of creating a good school culture isn't new, but 2016 has been a big year for urging schools to measure it.

For the first time ever, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include non-academic factors — like school climate — in how they gauge school success. Earlier this year, the Department of Education released an online toolbox to help administrators better measure and understand the school climate. One recent brief even linked a positive environment with improved teacher retention.

The potential payoffs are big, says Joaquin Tamayo, director of strategic initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education.

"Improving school climate is tough, it's tedious, it's incremental," he says. "But when folks can do it right, and when they really put not just their mind but their heart into it, it's just such a beautiful thing."

There's still a lot of work to be done in terms of defining, and measuring, a school's climate. A great school culture in the Bronx, for example, might require different resources than a school like the one Pam Hogue runs in northeast Arkansas.

But the new study's co-author, Ron Avi Astor, says the best schools transcend the culture of the community around them. They may differ in design, but they can feel very similar.

"They kind of see themselves as vehicles to change society — that these kids are going to go out and not just reflect where they came from and who they are, but change all that," he says. "And those are the most exciting schools."

Pam Hogue sees school climate as a launching point — a way to catapult kids toward opportunities outside their immediate environment.

"What we want to do is give our kids not only the skills but also the attitudes — things like confidence — to choose where they go in their life," Hogue says. "I want them to have the skills and the confidence to make that change."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.