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Educators examine student perspectives on engagement, belonging

Schools are using survey results to shape instruction

Kentwood — A morning meeting in Lauren Hopkins’ third-grade class provides a glimpse of what building relationships and cultivating a sense of belonging looks like at Discovery Elementary School.

Students spend a half hour seated on the classroom rug talking about various topics. They discuss rules: everything from “doing the right thing the first time” to “not talking when the teacher is talking.”

They discuss expectations listed on the class’ social contract and exciting news about an upcoming “Fun Friday” freetime. They share good news about family and friends and play “Would you rather?” debating important questions like if it’s better to be a dragon who only eats tacos or a kid who only eats books. 

They watch short videos from the character development program, True Success, learning about integrity and other positive traits. 

The gathering includes components of three social-emotional programs: True Success, Capturing Kids’ Hearts and Restorative Practices

“I get to connect with them on more of an emotional level,” Hopkins said of the meeting time.

Examining Survey Results

Hopkins is using pieces of programs designed to foster a sense of belonging among students as she and other Discovery teachers focus on reaching and meeting the needs of every student in the diverse school. They are using data from the MI Student VOICE Perception Survey taken by 96% of Discovery Elementary fifth-graders this past school year. 

Discovery Elementary third-grade teacher Lauren Hopkins blends social emotional programs to create a positive climate. From left are Lulu Moreno, Hopkins and Noah Hardy

The survey, originally developed by the Kent Intermediate Superintendents Association, measures students’ school experiences in the areas of engagement, social-emotional learning and belonging (equity and inclusion). The project team included Sunil Joy, a former Kent ISD data scientist, and Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Polston.

Now a statewide initiative, Kentwood is among 18 districts in Kent ISD to administer the survey so far. More than 50 districts statewide are also using it, according to Joy, who is now the director of research and innovation for Kentwood Public Schools. In Kentwood, nearly 4,000 students took the survey.

‘I feel like the perception data lets us see it from the kids’ perspective.’

— Social worker Neah Bremby

Discovery Elementary School’s leadership team, led by Principal Blair Feldcamp, has analyzed the building’s results and discussed ways to use it in shaping instruction and school-wide practices. 

A main question students answered is, “Do you feel like you belong at school?” 

The Discovery team examined demographic groups that reported a lower sense of belonging than others, noticing patterns and outliers. 

“I think it’s going to help us identify gaps,” said social worker Neah Bremby. “Kentwood is really tuned into the gaps in what we need to support our kids, but I feel like the perception data lets us see it from the kids’ perspective. So when we were looking at it, I see lots of gaps between, like, gender (and) ethnicity and I think that’s really going to allow us to input initiative to help with cultural awareness.” 

Belonging Linked to Student Outcomes

Other Kentwood schools are doing the same, with plans to use results to inform initiatives and objectives. The focus is linked to research that shows belonging improves student outcomes. When students have positive relationships with teachers and peers, they do better academically, said Andy Tevlin, district Multi-tiered Systems of Support coordinator. 

“The data has been a really good jump-off point for where we are with climate and culture,” Tevlin said. “These are real, living students that are providing us feedback on how we are doing with adults.”

Kentwood is using the data collected to align building-level goals with the district’s strategic plan and creating priorities. School leaders will craft goals accordingly.

“Social-emotional learning during the pandemic was a problem, but also, academics were a problem,” said Davie Store, Kent ISD director of research and continuous improvement, who is working closely with the survey data and findings. “You hear a lot of educators talking about (how they are) worried that the students haven’t recovered from the pandemic, but few of them talk about the socio-emotional part. All we are doing here is trying to bring in the socio-emotional piece.” 

Districts will have another opportunity to take the survey next spring; surveys for teachers, staff and parents are also being developed. A conference on how districts are using survey results is planned for early fall.

Survey results show SEL gaps statewide

Statewide results from 33,366 students across the 58 school districts that participated in the first two spring 2023 administration windows (through May 15) showed the following:
• Gaps exist in social and emotional learning; relationship skills and responsible decision making seem to be the major issues.
• On average, white students have higher SEL scores (meaning more positive answers in those categories) than Black or Hispanic students. 
• Non-binary students and students that prefer to self-describe their gender have lower SEL scores than male or female students. 
• About one in every five students have low social emotional learning skills. 
• On average, students in elementary grades have a higher sense of belonging than those in high school; relationships are reported as the issue. 
• Student engagement is higher in elementary grades than in middle or high school; “classroom climate” seems to be the problem.

District survey participation rates ranged from 20.8% to 82.0% and vary by grade level.

Source: MI Student VOICE Perception Survey results, spring 2023

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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