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social-emotional learning

How a sheriff’s department and a school teamed up for SEL


An Atlanta principal shares her experience implementing a social-emotional learning curriculum with the help of community partners.

School has always been a place for learning math, science, history, and art, but now it’s also becoming the place for students to learn other skills that are crucial to their future success and happiness, no matter where they end up. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not about grades, but about teaching students to solve their own problems, take pride in their efforts, and develop strong relationships within their community.

I am the principal of Chattahoochee Elementary School in Cumming, GA. When our district began the push towards SEL, each school chose a program to support it based on their needs and budget. At Chattahoochee, we chose 7 Mindsets, because it best aligns with our school’s goal to raise respectful, responsible problem-solvers.

Because the families in this area have very limited disposable income, fundraising in the community wasn’t an option, so Debbie Smith, the director of Student Support Services for Forsyth County Schools, asked our local Sheriff’s Department for help funding the program.

The department purchased the program for our district’s Northern Cluster: four elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school. The Sheriff’s Department ended up using funds from assets confiscated in local drug busts. It was a powerful thing to see that money, which was a result of something harmful to the community, being funneled back into that community for a program that will benefit it.

Changing Students’ and Teachers’ Mindsets

During the first year, our implementation was modeled after what another Forsyth County elementary school, Mashburn Elementary, had done. At Mashburn, they set up clubhouses where K–5 students get together and go to different locations in school to take part in mindset-based lessons and activities.

These clubhouses were effective, but it still didn’t feel like enough. The kids weren’t talking about living out the 7 Mindsets as much as we needed them to be.

So last year we went deeper, with teachers beginning to integrate the mindsets into their individual classes. This year we’re focusing on the teachers themselves, who are all meeting and working through the Educator’s Life Plan together. We believe that in order for our teachers to teach the mindsets to their students, they need to look at how they apply in their own lives first.

At Chattahoochee Elementary, rather than taking a punitive attitude to discipline, we focus on teaching our students life lessons from their mistakes, as well as their successes. We use discipline opportunities as teaching opportunities.

Every month teachers give awards for attendance, acts of kindness, or having an “attitude of gratitude.” These awards use the same language as the 7 Mindsets curriculum, and foster students talking about the mindsets in class, pointing out when they see an attitude of gratitude or an act of kindness, for example.

(Next page: Social-emotional learning with the Sheriff’s Department)

Engaging the Community

The Sheriff’s Department is enthusiastic about this program because, as Lt. Eric Silveus said recently, it promotes “interconnectedness between the grades. For a lot of kids, moving on to middle school or moving to high school is very scary,” and the mindsets teach students that “It’s not at all about me. I know the struggles I had in first grade and maybe I can help someone else get over that hurdle.”

To further encourage social-emotional growth throughout the district, our sheriff pledged to put a school resource officer (SRO) in every school, who would be trained in the 7 Mindsets. These SRO’s would work for the sheriff’s department, but would also be an integral part of the school community. They’ll eat lunch with the kids, open car doors in the morning, and be part of counseling services. Currently our district has SRO’s in two elementary schools, but we hope to have more in the future.

We are deeply grateful for this sort of collaboration, because we believe that teaching social-emotional learning is the job of everyone in our school community. We can’t just have two or three staff championing this program; 7 Mindsets needs to be a part of everyone’s lives. The 7 Mindsets is the thing that holds us together as a community.

It’s a big deal when your community gets involved. We’re incredibly thankful for the sheriff’s department and their funding of this program for multiple years.

We’re also working hard to teach this community mindset to our students with service learning projects. Our students collect for United Way and animal rescue shelters, and they recently collected clothing and food for The Place of Forsyth County, a local donation center. Next year the school is growing herbs to donate as well. We do this so our students understand what it’s like to live to give. We’re trying to make these mindsets real for the kids.

Seeing Results and Looking to the Future

When we started the program, we had the hypothesis that if we used one common language to talk about these mindsets, we could connect our community, and this would lead to a decrease in dropouts and an increase in attendance.

Since implementing the program, we’ve indeed starting to see an increase in attendance. We’ve been continuing to encourage this uptick, reminding students that every day counts. You can’t be everything you want to be if you don’t show up to school ready to learn and try your best.

Next year, we’re going to adjust things so that every class has their clubhouses at the same time on Fridays. We’ve traditionally had a lot of absences on Fridays, so we’re hoping to see kids make more of an effort to show up so they can go to the Mindsets clubhouses.

Students love the Mindsets clubhouses. They love talking about things going on in the world, and sharing their feelings. We’re also adding our Interests and Passions sessions on Fridays, where teachers will be teaching different interest groups, such as survival skills, fashion design, chess, and guitar.

Our district is one of the highest performing districts in the state. Even so, we have a substantial occurrence of generational poverty, parents working multiple jobs, and a high number of students who qualify for free and reduced meals.

However, with the 7 Mindsets program, we are teaching our students that their future is in their hands. They can be everything they want to be if they show up, work hard, and treat others with respect. We believe that our students are learning the skills to not only improve their own lives, but also the lives of others in their community.

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