Teen-agers feel safer and more at home in smaller schools with evenhanded discipline policies and teachers who can maintain control, a new study suggests.

But students do not necessarily feel safer in schools where classes are smaller, where teachers are more experienced, or where classmates are kicked out the first time they fight, cheat, or bring alcohol, drugs, or guns on campus.

“Class size may be much more important for academic outcomes, but for connectedness, it really is the culture, the climate that’s created in that classroom,” said Dr. Robert Blum, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Adolescent Health and Development. He is co-author of the study, which appeared in the Journal of School Health in April.

Previous studies have shown that “school connectedness”—the feeling that students are part of a school and cared for—is important in helping to protect teen-agers from violent behavior, drug use, depression, suicide, and pregnancy.

Joel Willen, principal of Pershing Middle School in Houston, said the findings on school size make sense to him. Pershing’s 1,900-member student body is divided into 13 clusters, allowing students to attend class with the same small group of students.

“I think that’s absolutely one of the reasons why the kids here feel connected, because they get an identity with their cluster,” Willen said. “They talk about being in cluster 6-1 or 8-2, and they really identify with their teachers.”

The study examined written surveys from 71,515 students in 127 high schools and middle schools. The findings were based on the surveys from the University of North Carolina’s National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that were given during the 1994-95 school year.

John Mitchell of the American Federation of Teachers welcomed the findings, but said that because the data were collected before the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, attitudes about safety may have changed.

“I think Columbine and the 9-11 tragedy have made us feel like we need heightened security,” he said.

The study found that students did not necessarily feel more connected to school if they had smaller classes or teachers with more experience.

Part of this could be because lower-performing students are often placed in smaller classes. Because these students tend to like school less, their numbers could mask the positive effects of smaller classes overall, the researchers said.

Empathetic, consistent teachers who invite students to suggest rewards and punishments—and who encourage students to check their own behavior—made students feel closer to school, researchers said.

Blum said schools could reap a “huge payoff” by training teachers more thoroughly in classroom management.

Students felt less cared for in schools with zero-tolerance policies for fighting, alcohol possession, and the like, where officials suspend or expel students for first infractions. Researchers suggested that “more moderate policies” are probably smarter.

Related links:
University of Minnesota study

National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health