Assistant Professor Publishes Article Exploring Racial Equity and School Climate - University of Houston
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Assistant Professor Publishes Article Exploring Racial Equity and School Climate


March 22, 2021

(HOUSTON, TX) - Assistant Professor Charles Lea has co-authored an article, "Centering Racial Equity in Measures of School Climate: Perspectives of Racial and Ethnic Minoritized Students" for the upcoming print edition of the Journal of the Society of Social Work and Research. It is currently available online.

The article examines school climate from the perspective of students and takes into account their perceptions and experiences of racial (in)equity and its impact on their interpersonal interactions and expectations. 

We asked Dr. Charles Lea to expand on why school administrators and policymakers who hope to serve students of color more equitably must consider the perceptions and experiences of students who have been historically disenfranchised.


Name: Charles H. Lea III

Assistant Professor

What initially led you to explore the topic of racial equity as it relates to school climate?

The co-authors and I decided to explore the topic of racial equity as it relates to school climate surveys because, at the time of the study, we were co-leading a regional Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Research Consortium to center youth voices and advance racial equity in the practice and assessment of SEL in school and out-of-school spaces. The emphasis of this collective work was to leverage resources to increase capacity within schools and community-based organizations (CBO) to position research activities around efforts to implement, test, and scale science-driven SEL strategies. We, therefore, partnered with representatives from a school district that was a member of the consortium to develop a better understanding of how Black and Indigenous youth of color (BIYOC) perceive racial equity informed items on a school climate survey to relate to their racially (in)equitable schooling experiences. We believe this research is important to promoting racial justice in educational settings because climate surveys are used by many school districts to understand student experiences of school, set policy, and determine school-wide interventions. They, therefore, are an important window into potential differences in students' school experiences based on race. It seemed like a missed opportunity to not explore how school climate surveys, and all infrastructure that already exists to disseminate their findings, could be used to promote racial equity, especially given the focus of many school districts on addressing the school structures and processes that create and sustain racial inequity.

In the article, you explore the ideas of ‘racial equity’ and ‘school climate.’ Can you expand on what these terms mean?

In the article, we describe racial equity as both a process and an outcome. As a process, racial equity is applied when efforts are made to address the root causes of racial inequity (i.e., policies, practices, attitudes, cultural messages) that create and perpetuate racial disadvantage and disparity. It is also applied when those who are impacted by structural racial inequity are meaningfully involved in reimagining and implementing racial equity-informed strategies. As an outcome, racial equity is achieved when a person’s racial identity no longer determines their life chances, trajectory, or outcomes, because the structures and processes that create and sustain racial inequity have changed. This promotes racial justice because people of all races receive systematically fair treatment and have the opportunities and resources they need to be successful and live healthy and well. 

School climate, on the other hand, is essentially the feel or heart of a school. This results from the perspectives and behaviors exhibited and experienced by students, school staff, and school partners, which play an important role in determining whether students feel a sense of belonging, have quality relationships, and feel physically and emotionally safe throughout the learning process. School climate is therefore the outcome of a school’s norms and values, interpersonal interactions between and among students, school staff, and school partners, and how a school’s policies and practices manifest.

Exploring racial (in)equity and its relation to school climate is a concept many educators and social workers are seeking to better understand. Why do you think it is essential that these concepts be measured when trying to establish a better educational experience for students that are Black and of color?

We believe it is necessary to measure the concepts of racial (in)equity and school climate when trying to promote positive schooling experiences and outcomes for Black and Indigenous youth of color (BIYOC) because studies find that when BIYOC perceive a school to be equitable in terms of its policies and practices, racial disparities in schooling experiences and outcomes are lessened. Specifically, a positive school climate helps to create the necessary conditions for learning, which is known to facilitate academic achievement, reduce student psychopathology and behavioral problems, and lower levels of school disorder (i.e., victimization, avoidance, safety, misconduct, offending). As such, since measures of school climate are commonly used as part of educational policy and practice improvement strategies, a natural extension of the use case for climate surveys is to better understand how school policies and practices can be structured to facilitate racial equity. Centering racial equity in school climate surveys thus necessitates understanding the experiences of BIYOC. Yet, most school climate measures do not include items specific to BIYOC’s perceptions of how school structures and processes facilitate racially (in)equitable experiences and outcomes.  

Why do you believe social workers are essential when to comes to better understanding racial (in)equity and school climate?

We believe that social workers are essential to helping facilitate racially equitable processes and outcomes as it relates to school climate because they can serve as intermediaries between students, families, and school staff and partners as they seek to interrogate and address local school climate issues. Their position as connectors and supporters can help the school navigate issues of access, intergroup dialogue, conflict, and limited resources. Additionally, social workers’ commitment to social justice necessitates a commitment to addressing racial (in)equity in schools, especially with supporting BIYOC in telling their stories or counter-narratives about racialized experiences in the education system. Moreover, given their position within the school and their commitment to student advocacy, social workers may be uniquely positioned to help school staff translate the stories and narratives into meaningful change in school climate measurement and practice. They might also facilitate racial bias training with school staff to help them recognize how they perpetuate and can address school policies and practices that lead to and perpetuate racial disparities. 

What key takeaways did you gain from your research findings? 

The following are two key takeaways we gained from our findings: 

  • Teachers play an important role in fostering racially equitable classroom climates that allow BIYOC to excel academically, develop a positive identity, and build social and emotional skills. 
  • Measures of school climate should include behavior management and classroom environment and instruction items that attend to BIYOC’s intersectional identities to capture the differential ways in which they experience and perceive prejudice and discrimination in the school context.