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The 14 Most Innovative SEL Districts, Part 1

Here's a quick look at how districts are creating safe learning environments that empower students

[Editor’s Note: This article was first published on the Move This World blog on November 1, 2018. Come back tomorrow for part 2.]

In this article, we will be highlighting districts that have shown tremendous commitment to the well being of their students and staff. These 14 districts are being recognized for their efforts in social emotional learning (SEL) and their dedication to creating safe learning environments where individuals feel empowered to express themselves, and where effective teaching and learning can occur.

What is SEL? As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Why should SEL be implemented in the classroom? Studies show that supporting students’ social and emotional development produces an 11-percentage point gain in grades and test scores. Sustaining a focus on social and emotional growth through adolescence is crucial for improving achievement and outcomes beyond school.

The best way to foster social emotional skills is through daily practice: in our classrooms. These 14 districts recognize the importance of both academic achievement and the social and emotional skills that lead students to become healthy and productive adults.

1. Hawaii Department of Education
Number of Students: 185,000
Number of Schools: 283

The Hawaii Department of Education is dedicated to the social emotional needs of their students and has an established commitment to the “Comprehensive Student Support System (CSSS).” According to the Hawaii DOE website, “CSSS ensures that ALL students achieve to their greatest potential when school administrators, students, teachers, staff, families, and school communities work together in compassionate, nurturing, and efficient partnerships.” The district has undergone a transformation by adopting a new school performance system, internationally-benchmarked standards, updated assessments, and more intense diploma requirements. So, where does social emotional learning come in hand? Social emotional learning approaches complement the districts commitment to CSSS and many Hawaii teaching standards address SEL principles. The Hawaii DOE believes the root of students’ success lies in social emotional learning. The district presents the annual “Schools of the Future Conference” alongside Hawaii Association of Independent Schools and the Hawaii Community Foundation. This collaborative event highlights best practices for social emotional learning in classrooms and schools. The district also offers teachers a “Social and Emotional Learning”course in order to help staff gain a better understanding of SEL.

Learn more about HDE’s Comprehensive Student Support System here.

2. Naperville (IL) Community School District
Number of Students: 16,600
Number of Schools: 22

Naperville Community School District began thinking about how to prioritize student’s social and emotional needs in 2014. At that time, district staff began to conduct research and identify needs of the students and educators; identifying a SEL core team to take ownership of this work, and developing professional learning opportunities for staff. Over the next four years they increased their dedication. They developed their own SEL curriculum, developed a parent and community committee, and implemented professional learning for staff as well as an education series for parents. NCSD achieved full K-12 SEL implementation in the 2017-2018 school year. In 2018, NCSD’s Education Foundation awarded grants for 13 teacher projects in the SEL and STEM categories to continue their work. They are currently focused on gathering feedback on current initiatives and revising plans as needed. NCSD is optimistic that they will see increased academic achievement, positive school climate, rising student attendance and better use of appropriate coping skills from more kids. Additionally, the district provides SEL snapshots to parents to encourage students to apply these skills at home.

Learn more about NCSD’s social emotional learning initiatives here.

3. Washoe (NV) County School District
Number of Students: 64,192
Number of Schools: 98

Washoe County School District’s main goal is no secret, you can find it directly in the districts motto: “Every Child, By Name and Face, To Graduation.” This goal was one of the main reasons that WCSD prioritized social emotional learning. WCSD strives to to ensure safe, secure, supportive and welcoming environments in schools. WCSD has a 3-pronged approach to SEL: climate and culture, integration and infusion into existing curriculum and direct instruction. The district has established clear social and emotional learning standards for its students. These standards are based on the 5 core competencies of social emotional learning as defined by CASEL. WCSD is using SEL is to raise graduation rates and it is a key strategy in the districts “90 by 20” plan- the goal is to increase the graduation rate to 90% by 2020. Since the implementation of SEL in 2012, WCSD has seen the graduation rate raise 20 points to 75 percent.

Learn more about WCSD’s social emotional learning initiatives here.

4. Tacoma (WA) Public Schools
Number of students: 30,000
Number of Schools: 57

Tacoma Public Schools is one of the largest districts in Washington State. The district is dedicated to meeting the social, emotional, and academic needs of students. Tacoma truly operates under a “students first” philosophy. The “Tacoma Whole Child Initiative” strives to help children develop the skills they will need to be socially strong, emotionally resilient, and self-determined. Deputy Superintendent, Joshua Garcia is quoted saying, “The Tacoma Whole Child Initiative is a 4 shift approach that aligns the efforts of school staff, community partners, families and neighborhoods to ensure every child is safe, healthy, engaged, supported and challenged. Across our city we have come together to support the Social Emotional and Academic Development of every child, everyday.” What are the results of this initiative thus far? There have been many notable achievements within the schools that have a social emotional learning focus. There has been substantial decreases in suspension, expulsion, and graduation gaps are closing.

TPS was featured in a Washington Post article that discussed how SEL initiatives have transformed students school experience and created more supportive learning environments. In November 2017, The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development visited TPS to hear from leaders regarding SEL implementation in the district. This visit was an opportunity for The Aspen Institute to delve deeper into TPS’s mission in supporting the whole child.

Learn more about TPS’s social emotional learning initiatives here.

5. Baltimore (MD) City Public Schools
Number of Students: 80,600
Number of Schools: 171

In 2016, Baltimore City Public Schools began outlining a “Blueprint for Success” based on feedback from hundreds of students, families, staff members and community stakeholders. The result? Three key focus areas for the 2017-2018 school year: student wholeness, literacy, and staff leadership. The overarching goal was to prepare young people for success in college, careers, and the community, both within Baltimore and in cities throughout the world. The blueprint clearly outlined expectations for everyone in the school community, including expectations for school staff and teachers, families and district leadership. All schools were expected to develop student’s five core SEL competencies (as defined by CASEL), implement a professional development plan for educators, and create a safe space in the school for students to visit for additional social, emotional or academic support. All staff were expected to participate in professional development to develop a better understanding of the CASEL framework. District staff were tasked with developing a plan for implementing restorative practices districtwide and providing appropriate funding to support key student wholeness initiatives.

For more information, contact Baltimore City Schools, Prevention and Intervention/Restorative Practice Coordinator, Erik Bandzak.

6. Boston (MA) Public Schools
Number of Students: 56,000
Number of Schools: 125

Boston Public Schools has seen a huge transformation over the past 20 years. BPS, once a failing school district, is now one of most renowned urban public school systems in the country. Social emotional learning has become the foundation of student wellness at BPS. Various departments center around the social emotional needs of students; two of these offices include: SEL Instruction & Support Services and SELWell Operations. The BPS Office of Social Emotional Learning and Student Wellness’ vision for students is “Healthy and supportive schools will prepare all students to learn and thrive.” The office takes a “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC)” approach, which combines elements of a traditional coordinated school health approach and a whole child framework. The goal is to actively promote social, emotional, and physical health and wellness to advance healthy development and readiness to learn. The SELWell departments collaborate to build a Multi-tiered System of Supports that are needed to implement SEL objectives.. BPS has recently hired an Assistant Superintendent of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness, which is believed to be the first cabinet- level post in a public school district in the nation. In July of 2017, BPS was awarded the Wallace Foundation Grant. BPS is one of six communities in the country to be selected for this initiative based on its efforts surrounding SEL.

Learn more about BPS’s social emotional learning initiatives here.

7. Anchorage (AK) School District
Number of Students: 47,000
Number of Schools: 130

Anchorage School District’s commitment to the social emotional needs of their students began over two decades ago. “Social emotional learning is at the heart of education in the Anchorage School District. We know from research that teacher-student relationships have a meaningful impact on academic growth. When we start by building strong relationships between teachers and students and between students, then we create a safe environment for students to learn and apply SEL skills such as knowing their own strengths, taking another’s perspective, communicating effectively, setting and achieving goals, and persevering. “These skills help us achieve our mission of educating all students for success in life,” says Superintendent, Dr. Denna Bishop. All schools in the district use the SEL Climate and Connectedness Survey and the SEL/Behavior Support Implementation Plan in order to achieve systemic implementation of social emotional learning initiatives. Every school has a leadership team that plans and adjusts implementation of SEL at their school. The district has even embedded SEL instructional strategies into principal training and district leadership meetings. ASD works to implement SEL through: climate, direct instruction and infusion. Climate refers to building safe and respectful learning environments, direct instruction refers to using a variety of programs to explicitly teach SEL skills and infusion refers to the integration of SEL principles throughout instruction. A Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS) approach integrates SEL curriculum and strategies to support positive behavior. ASD has also published a K-12 Instructional Practice which describes how to infuse SEL into Positive Classroom Behavior Management.

Learn more about ASD’s social emotional learning initiatives here.

Come back tomorrow for part 2, featuring the other 7 districts.

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