School Climate

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“When you make school climate a priority, you make homeless youth feel supported; you make sure foster youth don’t fall through the cracks…you make sure that 2 million students that do not have a single caring adult, have that adult in their lives.”

– Alena Cotton, CFJ Fresno Youth Leader

School climate continues to be a top priority for Californians as research shows it’s linked to both academic and social-emotional development for students. Yet students of color experience a far less supportive school environment than White peers. In California, 1 out of 3 students cannot identify a single caring adult (California Healthy Kids Survey), and over the course of a single day nearly 1 out of 5 students did not have a single teacher or staff member make eye contact or greet them by name (Californians for Justice Relationship Centered Schools Survey).

From access to healthy food and clean water, to a bathroom that corresponds with a student's gender identity and staff who can support a student's mental health needs, school climate is in need of a drastic shift. Research shows that when students feel supported, regardless of their background or race, they are less likely to miss school, less likely to face suspensions, and more likely to achieve academically. But too often, our schools rely on policing, punishment and a “control and command” approach with students, particularly in schools that serve low-income youth of color. Creating a positive school climate requires a commitment to ensuring every student has a relationship with a caring adult that can help to counter the negative impacts of racism. Those relationships are the heart of improving a student’s trajectory and the trajectory of our education system as a whole.

What is School Climate?

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When we talk about School Climate in California schools – too often it is narrowly defined as safety related to school security, or how young people and educators feel on school campuses.

School Climate is much more.

School Climate encompasses a school’s overall culture. A culture that is created by the beliefs, attitudes, stated and unstated norms that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions. That culture deeply informs the day-to-day experiences of students in their school environment. This includes everything from teaching practices, to how adults engage with students, to the relationships administrators, teachers, parents, and students hold with one another, to the degree a school embraces and celebrates racial and cultural diversity in and outside our schools.

One way to think of School Climate is to think of school as a community. When a community does not have either the relational and material resources to support students, families, and school staff; or students and their parents feels unsafe and unwelcome it can create an environment that exacerbates achievement gaps and promotes low expectations for learning and success.

Why School Climate Matters

Since its beginnings, our education system was not designed to emphasize relationships, personalized learning for students with unique skills and strengths, or consider how a young person’s racial and socio-economic background shape their learning experience or school climate.

A recent report from Berkowitz et al (2016) reviewed 78 school climate studies going back to the year 2000. The report found that “a more positive school climate is related to improved academic achievement, beyond the expected level of achievement based on student and school socioeconomic status backgrounds,” and can mitigate the negative effects of poverty on academic achievement.

In short, school climate is a critical factor in behavioral, academic, and mental health outcomes. More importantly, it is critical to understand that student voice, space and time for relationship building, and investing in the development of teachers and staff – are essential building blocks for high quality and thriving schools. These building blocks promote positive continuously improving environments where young people feel safe, supported, and belonging in school.

Ultimately, establishing positive school conditions and climate takes all of us leading together. When students and educators work together to create a positive school climate it “has been proven to increase student academic achievement for all student groups, improve student and staff morale, and contribute to both teacher retention and teacher feelings of effectiveness.” (School Climate Workgroup Framework 2017)

“Relationships between teachers and students are the key to closing the Achievement Gap for students of color.”

– Karrionne Stokes, CFJ Long Beach Alum and Justice Fellow

Key Facts to Know

  1. In California, Black students are twice as likely as White peers to feel unsafe or very unsafe at school.
  2. More than half of Latinx students in California report feeling disconnected from school, and less than half report that they are treated fairly.
  3. In California, Asian students were among the least likely to believe their schools had caring adult relationships (30% of respondents, compared to 39% of White students)
  4. Black girls are suspended six times as often as White peers, and Black and Latinx students in general are more likely to be referred for discipline violations and then suspended or expelled than White students. 


Our Vision

More progress is needed to ensure that school climate at every campus meets the needs of all students and families, particularly students of color, immigrant students, low-income students, and other marginalized students.

At a moment where school safety is a key issue, schools must be welcoming and trusting spaces for young people to thrive.

At a moment where school safety is a key issue, schools must be welcoming and trusting spaces for young people to thrive. Fortunately, there are exciting efforts emerging across the state to improve school climate, but more support is needed to accelerate and expand these critical changes. The California Department of Education has adopted new Social Emotional Learning Guidelines and a framework for School Conditions and Climate assessment. Youth with Californians for Justice are leading a Relationship Centered Schools movement that is taking hold in districts and schools across the state, and have helped to win $28.3 million in State resources to create School Climate and Community Engagement Initiatives that will increase racial equity in engagement and school discipline.

When young people feel safe, supported and empowered to succeed we know that our schools are set up for success. We envision a diverse and equitable environment that feels more connected and whole; one where staff, students, and families are provided avenues of understanding and, together, are invested in leading a community-driven school. In partnership with the community, our schools will be more able to provide comprehensive services that inquire about a students' unique needs, address the issues that weigh on them at school, and offer support.

“The number one foundation to learning is relationships. All young people need five caring adults, it takes ALL adults.”

– Curtiss Sarikey, Community Engagement Superintendent, Oakland Unified School District

History of School Climate

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Since its beginning, communities of color have experienced many levels of trauma, harm, and violence from our education system. That trauma and violence has taken shape in involuntary segregation, from Indian boarding schools to anti-immigrant laws in the 1990s that made it illegal for undocumented young people to be at school. These policies persist in the sharp opposition to young people learning their home languages in classrooms, and security officers and educators who over police & discipline Black and Latinx students.

Since 1996, Californians for Justice youth leaders have played an active role in calling for an end to harmful education policies that seek to divide and limit the experiences of youth of color. Californians for Justice youth leaders have been essential in helping to mobilize community support for education reform in California. At a time when state and local leaders increasingly push for militarization and police presence on our campuses, CFJ students are using their voice to pushback against the school-to-prison, school-to-poverty and school-to-deportation pipelines.

Under California’s new state funding law, the Local Control Funding Formula, students and families of color have been given the chance to directly influence policy and push for practices we know to be positive rather than punitive. CFJ youth leaders have led statewide campaigns to emphasize the importance of School Climate by redefining “what makes a good school”, winning key measurements for school success like suspensions and chronic absenteeism, and worked with the CA Department of Education to develop a new framework for School Climate & Conditions. Locally, CFJ youth leaders are leading together with school staff in 11 schools across 5 districts to implement Relationship Centered Schools framework.

Join the Fight for Racial and Educational Justice!