Berkeley Middle shows woes on climate survey

When Berkeley Middle School principal Amour Mickel saw the results of her school's climate survey, she wasn't surprised.

Of the four categories — feedback and coaching, school climate, resources and school leadership — Berkeley teachers and staff responded negatively to the majority of questions in each category.

Its responses rank lowest of each school, in every category.

"It actually just solidified some of the things that we had already begun to talk about," Mickel said. "We're having those discussions about who we are, what we represent, and we have the ability to make some positive changes going forward."

She's glad to have the results.

The survey, which was confidential but not anonymous, went out to staff and teachers across Williamsburg-James City County Schools in October and November.

This was the first district-wide climate survey. The division administers a student survey each fall and plans to have the staff climate survey trade off years with the parent and community survey, slated for next fall.

Overall, 61 percent, or 1,124, employees responded. Teachers took the survey at a much higher rate — 73 percent participated whereas only 49 percent of staff did.

The survey was administered by the third-party company Panorama. It's intended as a benchmark for continuous improvement, Superintendent Olwen Herron said.

"This gave us a global perspective, gave us feedback based on the same questions across the division, so that is a benefit," schools spokeswoman Betsy Overkamp-Smith said. "We want to know what people are thinking and feeling. If we don't ask we won't know what is concerning people and what they are happy about."

The survey results are measured on the Likert scale. Each response translates to a value, one to five, with five being most favorable and one being least.

The 36 questions ranged from quality of resources to the amount of trust and respect from school leadership to positivity of the work environment.

W-JCC's average scores hugged the neutral zone, around 3.0.

D.J. Montague Elementary School staff answered most positively across the board, giving the most favorable answers in each category except in resources. Matthew Whaley Elementary followed closely behind D.J., also excluding resources.

While Berkeley scored lowest everywhere, Warhill High School came in second to Berkeley in every category except resources.


Berkeley's average scores by category were all well below 3.0 and as much as 0.76 less than the next closest score.

When asked how positive Berkeley's work environment is, 46 percent said "not at all" positive, followed by 28 percent choosing "slightly positive."

No one said it was "extremely" positive and four people, or 5 percent, said "quite positive."

This is Mickel's second year leading the school; it has cycled through three principals in four years. Mickel called the staff "tight knit," which is why she was caught off-guard by the question's response.

Seventy-three percent also said their colleagues' attitudes were slightly or not at all positive. Yet when asked how respectful school leaders are toward them, 47 percent said quite or extremely respectful.

"That made me feel proud, that the staff realizes that I respect them," Mickel said. "We may communicate about challenges that we have, but we also communicate about the solutions to those."

Overkamp-Smith said while leadership is a part of school climate, one person isn't responsible for everything. Access to resources, which is affected by the division's budget, plays a large part, she said. That budget has been tight in recent years.

"Some of the things that directly impact climate are completely out of the hands of the school principal, the school administration, like crowding resources," Overkamp-Smith said. "It does take time to build relations with staff and we have had turnover at some of the schools in recent years."

In the classroom

Except for James River and Matoaka elementary schools, more than 60 percent of staff at each school — as much as 96 percent in the case of Toano Middle — reported classes are somewhat, quite or extremely crowded.

Capacity issues at the middle schools have been apparent for years, Overkamp-Smith said. According to projections, Berkeley will be over capacity by 114 percent, followed by Toano at 108 percent and Hornsby at 102 percent.

Opening James Blair middle in 2018 will make a difference, Overkamp-Smith said.

"It's obvious that we need a new middle school," School Board Chairwoman Kyra Cook said. "I think that will improve climate across the board, but more certainly at Berkeley."

Cook has two children at Berkeley, in seventh and eighth grades.

The other widely agreed-upon question was about specialists. At each school, more than 65 percent of responders agreed it is somewhat, quite or extremely important to hire more specialists for student aid.

President of the Williamsburg Education Association Kim Hundley, who also teaches kindergarten at Stonehouse Elementary, wasn't surprised.

She said the responses were likely referring to special education, math and reading specialists, though the question did not specify. Elementary schools generally get more math and reading help than upper levels, but that doesn't mean middle and high schools don't need it, she said.

"The resources are limited; we're asking teachers to do more," Hundley said. "I think it's very important to see how people are feeling and talk about it."

Next steps

At Berkeley, Mickel said she's working with her leadership team to develop a vision for the school. Teacher and staff input is part of her plan.

The next iteration of the climate survey for staff and teachers is scheduled for the 2018-19 school year — the same year the new middle school opens.

In the meantime, Herron said the division will use the results to find areas in need of improvement.

Under her direction, each principal is tasked with creating a leadership team to find and tackle areas of need specific to their school.

"My conversations with Berkeley are the same with every school: find some data points where there's room for improvement and work collaboratively with your staff to improve them," Herron said. "And there's always room for improvement at every school."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

To see the entire survey results, click here. School abbreviations are in the bottom right-hand corner, from Bright Beginnings through Warhill High School. 

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