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Rhonda Silence

Superintendent speaks about need for demographics in student survey

Students at School District 166 were recently asked to complete a survey about their school experience last week and some parents have asked why the survey was necessary—and what it will be used for. The first four questions, related to ethnicity and gender identity, surprised some families and led to some social media conversations. WTIP reached out to ISD 166 Superintendent Chris Lindholm to learn more.

The survey is titled simply Fall School Survey. Lindholm explained that the survey was put together by a group of teachers to learn how students were feeling about the school, whether they feel included and if they were experiencing bullying. He said this teaching team is passionate about making sure every student feels valued and supported by the school.

The survey of about 40 questions went to students in fifth through 12th grades. Lindholm said this is not the first time such a survey was done, but it was not done last year during distance learning. However, he said the teachers who compiled the survey wanted to do it again. Lindholm said they did share the survey with him before it was conducted. He stressed that the survey is anonymous.

Social media comments from parents focused primarily on two of the first four questions. Question 2 pertains to gender and asks students to choose from the following options: female, male, non-binary, or other.

Question four asks students to check a box to answer the survey question of how they identify—LGBTQ+, straight, or undecided. One concerned parent asked why there was no option of “Prefer not to answer.”

Superintendent Lindholm said that option, to not answer a survey question could possibly be added in any future surveys.

Overall, parents questioned the need for these questions and Superintendent Lindholm said the purpose of the survey is to ensure that all students at School District 166 feel safe and cared about. The questions on gender and ethnic background will be studied, to see if there is a correlation between students feeling safe—or not safe.

Lindholm spoke to the concerns, “On that fourth question, ‘identify as LGBTQ or undecided’ – 25 percent of our students have identified as that. So, it is a significant percentage of our student body who identify on their own as not straight and working through or gender fluid or some other part of being in the LGBTQ community. “

He said it is important to know if people in that particular demographic are not feeling safe or connected. He said that is why questions are also asked about ethnicity. “So those demographics are really important to tease out and then and say, ‘Do all of our students that come to us feel safe and welcome?’” said Lindholm.

There was some parental concern about the survey going to fifth-graders, with some parents questioning whether that was appropriate. Lindholm was straightforward in his response. “For people who are in the LGBTQ community, it is very, very common for youth to be wrestling with the questions they have about their gender identity, as young as fifth, fourth, third, even second, first, kindergarten. It’s very common. That’s what our mental health experts tell us. That’s what our medical community tells us.”

Lindholm said if the school district has LGBTQ+ kids in fifth or sixth grade that don’t feel connected, then there is a problem. And that is one of the things the school is attempting to address by surveying students.

Lindholm reiterated that the survey is anonymous and cannot be tied to a particular student. He said the hope is that the survey will provide a general idea of how students feel about school.

The majority of the other questions are about the student’s perception of school, such as “I have plenty of time to learn,” “Teachers and students care about each other,” and “I feel safe at school.”

There are a few questions specifically about bullying, asking students how often they had been bullied in the last month, with choices ranging from “never” to “more than once a week.”

The survey asks for student perception of adult behavior at school with questions such as “If you reported bullying, it was handled appropriately” and “Adults at school think all students can do well.”

WTIP asked a question that is on some parents’ minds—why doesn’t the school focus on education fundamentals, the proverbial 3 Rs? To that Lindholm said, “There’s a mountain of research that says, students can’t learn reading, writing, and arithmetic if they don’t feel safe; if they don’t feel cared for. And if they don’t come in a mental state where they can learn what we know now, we know more now today than ever before about how trauma, how home situations, about how violence and fear, get in the way of student learning, and then ultimately caused significant achievement gaps that plays out in all kinds of different ways.

“So we have to start with a safe, caring, loving environment, and then we can get to learning. So this is the level one work that all schools have to do to be successful with students,” said Lindholm.

Finally, Lindholm mentioned a second survey of both students and teachers, which is not anonymous. This survey asks school staff members about students they feel they have a relationship with. Then it asks students, what school staff do you have a good relationship with?

Lindholm explained, “We truly want to connect the dots and make sure we aren’t missing students. And it’s all with the intent of loving kids and making sure we can very intentionally reach out to them and make sure they are connected.”

Lindholm said he applauds his staff for doing this work and being intentional in trying to connect with students.

Lindholm said anyone with questions about either survey or about anything at school may contact him or Principal Megan Myers. The school district office phone number is 218-387-2271 and the school high school office is 218-387-2273.