Rigor and joy: SEL and academics go hand-in-hand


McMinnville School District serves 6,800 students across 9 schools

Biggest challenge

We are a Title 1 school in rural Oregon with over 60 percent of our students experiencing poverty and our best estimate tells us that 36 percent have also experienced some sort of childhood trauma. These obstacles create barriers for our students coming to school ready to learn and thrive both academically and social emotionally. Our teaching staff was struggling with knowing how to meet both of these needs simultaneously, focusing on both SEL and academics. In our field, there is a false dichotomy that educators should focus on either SEL or academics, hence the unending pendulum swing in education. The truth is our kids need and deserve both simultaneously. We needed to foster a growth culture that fostered high expectations and support for the whole child.


The transformational growth that we took on in our building could not have happened without growth mindset. The foundational belief that intelligence is malleable and that each child’s “true potential is unknown and unknowable.” (Dweck, 2006). We began this work by starting with the adults. We examined our own tendencies toward growth mindset messages and fixed mindset messages. We recognized that our systems often reflect past practice and can sometimes be obstacles to growth. We challenged one another to ask deep, difficult questions and foster each other’s learning as we tried new things. We sought to understand growth mindset not as a fad in education, but as ethical responsibility to understand and teach in ways that support brain development for our students.

Related: 5 tips for nurturing a growth mindset

With the support of a literacy-based, growth mindset and SEL curriculum called Growing Early Mindsets (GEM), we were able to clearly demonstrate to students from as early as preschool the importance of pursuing new challenges and ideas. By making an early introduction to their brains and illustrating the growth it was capable of, students started to see their obstacles as opportunities in a way that adults on our campuses struggled to do. This curriculum is based off current neuro-research about developing brains and positive psychology. The curriculum is now part of our preschool, kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Staff at other grade levels have also implemented growth mindset in authentic and organic ways that have completely transformed the dialogue in our building. It is truly possible to stop students in the hallway and ask them how they have demonstrated a growth mindset today and they will answer with stories about perseverance, growing their brain by doing difficult tasks, and embracing challenge. I’ll overhear students chatting about their neurons, their potential and the goals they’re setting to achieve great heights. I can’t say that looking back at our school four years ago.

The greatest thing about growth mindset is that the concept applies to both academic and social arenas. Some of our most powerful stories involve students who have had experienced childhood trauma and struggle with both learning and behavior. Through growth mindset, they understand that they have the potential to grow new pathways in their brains and, with support, strive to take ownership over their own brain development by demonstrating new skills. It has been a cornerstone in implementation of trauma informed practices at our school. Through deep growth mindset implementation, we have been able to move the dial both on student achievement and student behavior in our building. It is a strength-based model that focuses on the effort, goal setting and feedback that propels our students forward.

Growth mindset is now woven tightly into our school culture. Our mantra through this work has been “the relentless belief that every child has an unlimited capacity to learn.” Our school staff is endlessly motivated to continue showing students their full capacities to grow and learn with no limits because of the growth that they themselves exude day-to-day.

Lessons learned

  • When teachers believe relentlessly that every student has an unlimited capacity to learn this impact everything in the school system positively.
  • Our students deserve both social emotional learning and high expectations for academic achievement–both SEL and academics can be done well simultaneously.
  • SEL and academics go hand-in-hand and mutually reinforce the other: Schools can maximize whole child learning by integrating the two instead of polarizing them.
  • Leadership matters immensely. It is our job as school leaders to be role models, but that does not mean we stop learning from how students see the world.

Related: 5 ways we develop SEL in our students

Next steps

  • Replicate success by staying the course, going deeper with growth mindset understanding and continuing to notice fixed systems that create obstacles to student outcomes.
  • Understand the relationship between growth mindset and equity of outcomes for our students who experience implicit bias based on fixed systems.
  • Encourage students to be growth mindset ambassadors for their families, friends and greater community.
  • Acknowledge the impact of home life circumstances on student outlook in a positive, constructive manner.

8 ways to improve your school or district website

With charter schools’ enrollment growing – the number of charter schools more than tripled from 2000 to 2015, according to the most recent data available from NCES – public, private, and charter schools find themselves competing for students.

For many parents, the first impression of a school comes from its website. School and school district websites are increasingly becoming marketing tools for attracting students and setting the tone for all potential incoming students.

Related: 10 districts with awesome brands

This highly competitive environment means that school and school district websites need to attract more students, engage with parents, and even recruit high-level staffing. To achieve this, your website should focus on the digital customer experience and feature accessible, searchable and relevant information while being easily updatable, scalable and secure.

Eight ways to improve your school or district website

The tips outlined below can help you improve your school or district website and make it an effective and engaging tool.

1. Tell a compelling story – All of the content featured on your website, including video, articles and photographs, should tell the unique story of your school or district’s history, mission, vision and culture. Telling a compelling story through your website makes your school personable to interested students, communicates your vision with parents, and even explains what you can offer prospective instructors. Consider working with a professional photographer or videographer to capture the visual aspects of your campus, as those images help parents clearly envision their child attending the school.

2. Make it easy to navigate – Many schools fall into the trap of cluttering up their websites with too much information and too many links. A simple, clean menu and quick links can make it easy for your visitors to find basic information like summer reading lists, lunch menus, academic calendars, and upcoming events. Delivering a better website user experience can help build your brand and develop strong connections with parents, teachers, students and the community.

Related: 5 signs of a tech-friendly district

3. Make it mobile friendly – Making your website mobile-friendly means that it provides a great user experience regardless of the device it is viewed on. Statista reported that in 2018 over 52 percent of all website traffic worldwide was generated through mobile devices, meaning those viewing your website are increasingly doing so on their phones.

Making your website mobile-responsive means your site is easy to navigate, your content is easy to read, and your web pages load quickly on devices such as smartphones and tablets. Text, images and videos should be viewable, readable, scalable, and interactive regardless of the device used to view them. Providing a user experience that allows parents, staff and students the ability to access your website from anywhere offers a convenient, one-stop resource for school information that will increase user engagement and interaction.

4. Design for accessibility – Many school and district websites are not in compliance with the WCAG 2.0 or the extended WCAG 2.1 content accessibility guidelines for ADA, making it harder for visitors with disabilities to get the information they need – and (worse yet) inviting potential lawsuits. It is important to understand key accessibility principles and guidelines, test and evaluate your site’s performance against those guidelines, and develop plans for resolving accessibility issues. Designing accessible websites improves digital customer experience, making sure everyone, regardless of ability, can get what they’re looking for on a website.

5. Provide a searchable directory – Directory pages are often the most popular destinations on school websites, and as such, it is important to make it easy for users to find contact information for faculty and staff. A user-friendly searchable directory is one that allows your visitors to type in a name, title or department to find a contact. Include email addresses for contacts in your directory to make it convenient for parents to contact staff without having to pick up their phone.

6. Highlight a calendar of events – Your calendar of events should be highlighted on your website to ensure that parents can easily find it. This calendar should include all school or school district events and should be updated on a regular basis so that parents can adequately plan in advance for events. A visible, consistently updated calendar helps ensure your events are well-attended and not forgotten. To make your calendar easier to update, don’t post PDFs or other hard-to-change files. Static PDF calendars don’t allow users to download calendar events directly to their personal calendars.

7. Provide grade-specific updates – Busy parents don’t want to spend time sifting through information that doesn’t affect them. Beyond that, they have an expectation for personalized information. Your website can provide this personalized experience by offering a menu that guides parents to the information they’re looking for depending on the age of their child. Your website should feature links that provide grade-specific information related to news, events, upcoming key dates, after school programs and other relevant topics. This strengthens the connection with parents and cuts down on phone calls about this information.

8. Use a content management system (CMS) – Many schools and school districts don’t have the in-house technical resources to develop a website that meets the needs of students, teachers, administrators and parents, and are looking for resources to help transform their web presence. This is where a CMS can help. A CMS solution partner can help your school or school district create an updated, attractive, easy to maintain website, yield savings in development costs and empower your staff to maintain your website and keep content fresh. CMS providers can also equip your website with the ability to scale up or down to meet web traffic needs. Most importantly, a reliable CMS helps keep your website – and the sensitive information on your website – safe and secure.

As your school or school district competes for students and the mindshare of parents across your community, it is more important than ever to transform your web presence and reposition your brand as a high-performing school system. The eight tips outlined above can improve your school or district website to elevate your message to parents, students, and community members alike.


Using design thinking to support makerspaces

Creating makerspaces and incorporating them into schools involves more than coming up with project ideas. Typically, when schools add makerspaces, they’re also looking to shift their education goals and focus on skills beyond traditional curriculum.

As Michelle Luhtala, library department chair at New Canaan High School, CT, and Bill Derry, a consultant for schools and public libraries in Connecticut, explain in their edWebinar, “Design Models that Guide Innovative Thinking,” for educators looking to make this transition, there are several different methodologies that complement the goals of makerspaces and help students become creative problem solvers.

Related: Using makerspaces to support personalized learning


3 great ways to supercharge student engagement

No matter what the subject, before students can learn new skills or absorb new material, they need to be paying attention. Here, three educators share the tech tools and best practices they use to improve student engagement and make sure students are energized, focused, and ready to learn.

Three ways to focus on student engagement

1. Catherine Castillo: Guided math talks

We use Daily Math Fluency by hand2mind to help educators guide math talks with students. It provides educators with a framework for being intentional about using math talks and number strings in their classrooms.

Related: 5 online discussion tools to fuel student engagement

Since we’ve incorporated it, students are more comfortable exploring the multiple ways a math problem can be solved—and openly sharing their strategies and solutions. They’re developing strong number sense by connecting mathematical concepts and exploring relationships by using visual models such as dot patterns, ten-frames, and open arrays.


Using your LMS for teaching and professional learning

Picture this: You roll out a new learning management system (LMS) for students, but all of your professional learning is either hosted on a different platform or conducted in person with notes shared via email afterward. Sound familiar?

It’s more common than you think, but separating the educator professional learning (PL) experience from the student learning experience can actually have a negative impact on both parties’ experiences in the long run.

Related: 3 reasons elementary schools should adopt an LMS

Using the same LMS for teaching students to host PL is a proven best practice. It allows teachers to experience learning as their students do, while providing opportunities for asynchronous PL, and making modeling easier to translate in the classroom.

According to the faculty and administrators who participated in Schoology’s State of Digital Learning Survey, 61 percent of them say the LMS used in the classroom is the same used for PL.


What is student agency–and why do we need it?

It’s only recently that I’ve become much more disciplined in my use of the term “student agency” and how I apply it.

Thanks to a research assignment on behalf of the Center for Innovation in Education’s Assessment for Learning Project, I’ve learned that the term—and related terms, such as “self-regulated learning”—has a rich lineage of researchers and practitioners who have carefully defined it.

By looking across researchers (1), practitioners, and other thought leaders (2), common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.

Related: What student choice and agency actually looks like

From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of “student agency” that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:
• Setting advantageous goals
• Initiating action toward those goals
• Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals


What is student agency–and why do we need it?

It’s only recently that I’ve become much more disciplined in my use of the term “student agency” and how I apply it.

Thanks to a research assignment on behalf of the Center for Innovation in Education’s Assessment for Learning Project, I’ve learned that the term—and related terms, such as “self-regulated learning”—has a rich lineage of researchers and practitioners who have carefully defined it.

By looking across researchers (1), practitioners, and other thought leaders (2), common elements arise that begin to suggest a consensus.

Related: What student choice and agency actually looks like

From these sources, the dust seems to settle on a concept of “student agency” that involves four distinct components. The first three are temporally linked covering future, present, and past:
• Setting advantageous goals
• Initiating action toward those goals
• Reflecting on and regulating progress toward those goals


Why keeping students safe online is about much more than web filtering

When K-12 leaders think of protecting students online, the first thing that comes to mind is shielding them from hackers, predators, or inappropriate websites—and internet filtering systems can perform this function well. But there is much more to protecting students online than just monitoring or filtering their web access.

Adolescence can be a rough period for students, both socially and emotionally, and they face a wide variety of threats to their safety and well-being. Sometimes, these threats come from other students, such as bullying, sexual harassment, radicalism, or hate crimes; sometimes they can be self-inflicted, such as eating disorders, self-harm, or thoughts of suicide.

Read this full report to find out how Hillcrest Academy in Minnesota and Summit Preparatory school in Montana have tacked these issues within budget.


4 strategies to close the digital equity gap

According to Davis, Fuller, Jackson, Pittman, and Sweet (2007), the definition of digital equity is “equal access and opportunity to digital tools, resources, and services to support an increase in digital knowledge, awareness, and skills.” With that in mind, school leaders are working to strategically close the digital equity gap.

In a recent edWebinar, Sarah Thomas, educator and founder of the EduMatch movement; Nicol Howard, assistant professor in the School of Education at University of Redlands (CA); and Regina Schaffer, technology specialist at Middletown Township School District (NJ), embrace this definition and explain that school districts need to consider four critical components in their drive to close the digital equity gap that is widespread in K-12 districts and classrooms.

Related: 7 reasons why digital equity is a social justice issue

Honest conversation

It is essential that edtech leaders engage in candid discussions with crucial district stakeholders to identify critical digital equity barriers such as access, connectivity, and opportunities.


4 actions to drive an elementary school turnaround

In the summer of 2016, I decided to take on a fresh new challenge and, to be honest, I was a little intimidated at the start. The opportunity had come up to serve as principal at Lake Park Elementary, a Title 1 school where just one quarter of students were proficient in literacy and the school was on the state’s list of the 300 lowest-performing schools—the need for an elementary school turnaround was clear. I wondered, “Do I have what it takes to effect meaningful change at this school?”

Related: 3 common misconceptions that thwart school improvement

My hiring supervisor was quick to point out that I was already doing the same type of work over the past 19 years, primarily at the secondary level. Being principal at Lake Park would give me a chance to make a difference for students much earlier on. The fact that my own children were in elementary school at the time helped me realize that perhaps I was meant to do this job.

Driving an elementary school turnaround

All students need to be able to access a high-quality education delivered by well-trained teachers, and it would be my mission to make that happen. Together with my administration team and teachers, here are four actions we took to enable an elementary school turnaround.