Five Seed Grants Will Bolster School Safety Through Education

By Andrew Myers

One often and easily overlooked factor in the effort to make schools safer is the role teacher burnout plays in restricting educational opportunities in low-income and urban settings.

“Underpaid and stressed out, many preschool teachers are clinically depressed,” says Lieny Jeon, an assistant professor and education researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “It has a negative impact on the school environment.”

Now, Jeon and the multidisciplinary research team she leads—plus four other safe-school-related research efforts—will get a kick-start thanks to seed grants from the newly formed Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. The five $10,000 grants are part of the center’s inaugural round of funding to researchers exploring innovative ideas about what it takes to make a school safe and healthy.

Jeon studies the root causes and effective strategies to break what she refers to as the “preschool-to-prison pipeline” that is too common in such communities. Study after study shows that quality preschool is key to lifelong learning and success, yet access is lacking in poorer communities.

Jeon focuses on understanding the day-to-day struggles that teachers endure, both physical and mental, as strategy for improving the quality of preschool programs.

“The teachers are key to creating a positive school environment for the kids,” she says.

Jeon says that, often, teachers are stretched to the maximum and it has an impact on the quality of the education. She hopes to find ways to counteract detractors from teacher enthusiasm and motivation. Her team is looking at teacher psychological state, as well as other important aspects of teacher satisfaction, such as physical well-being, and how these factors impact teachers’ commitment and motivation.

“With a holistic understand of the teacher mindset, we can develop strategies and policies that create a more positive environment for teachers with the goal of providing a better-quality education for children,” Jeon says.

Another grant recipient is a team of collaborators headed by Sterling Travis and Vivian Lee, both of the School of Education, and Elise Pas, of the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Their team will be looking at the growth in school districts contracting full-time clinical mental health counselors to work in schools throughout the country.

Travis says many school districts and policy planners feel that it is a necessary move for many schools to contract out clinical mental health counseling services given the rise in school violence. Travis and colleagues will specifically look at adaptations of education and training that those clinical mental health counselors are receiving prior to working in the schools. These clinical mental health counselors provide mental health services alongside the school counselors who are already working in the school settings. The study will explore the nuances of these new relationships and collaborations between clinical mental health professionals and school counselors in addressing today’s unique challenges. 

This is a scoping study, Travis says. “We want to better understand the training that clinical mental health counselors who are working in school settings are receiving and the variations in required coursework across the country,” he adds. “Each state has its own laws.” 

Each of the five 2019 grantees will receive $10,000 to conduct research into what makes a school safer. Travis says the funding will help his team hire two graduate students to prepare a survey, to gather and analyze data, as well as to disseminate the findings once ready.

Jeon’s seed grant will be bolstered by additional funding from Johns Hopkins 21st Century City Initiative, coordinated by James “Mac” McComas. He says the initiative’s mission is to leverage the expertise of Johns Hopkins faculty to help create cities that are dynamic hubs of inclusion and innovation.

There’s a lot of evidence that investments in early childhood education have profound benefits later in life, McComas says, and the initiative has a hunch that universal preschool could save cities money on welfare, avoided incarceration, and public safety.

“We’re interested in whether investments in human capital in front end of life have an impact on these important measures of urban improvement down the road,” he says.

The Center for Safe and Healthy Schools offered the grants two broad categories of research: “Health and Wellness” and “School and Community Engagement.” The other three grantees include “BELIEVE: Preventing Preschool Suspension and Expulsion,” led by Elizabeth Boyle of the School of Education and the IDEALS Institute; “Humiliation as a Factor Contributing to Other Behavioral Concerns,” led by Sheldon Greenberg of the School of Education; and “Building School and Community Capacity Through Citizens’ Engagement,” led by Antigoni Papadimitriou and Anita Young of the School of Education.

“Fostering collaborative efforts that refine our knowledge of what makes schools safe spaces to learn is an important part of the mission of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools,” says Juliet Ray, director of Grant Services for the center. “To that end, we are very happy to announce support for these five innovative and multidisciplinary research projects that will lead to more evidence-based solutions for issues related to school safety.”