Preparing students for life beyond high school can mean many things. It can mean making sure they have the knowledge and technical skills needed for a specific job. Or helping them achieve the GPA or course requirements needed to get into a certain college or university. It should also mean focusing on what are sometimes called the “soft skills”–I call them “life skills.”
Life skills are the social and emotional skills that help someone succeed, both in academics and in life–skills like relationship-building, personal responsibility, and decision-making. When you start to look at what the ideal graduate looks like, they would have both academic and social and emotional skills.
I serve as principal of the 540-student Business Technology Early College High School (BTECH) in Queens, New York. Our focus is on underserved youth who are interested in careers in information technology and computers. We have many pathways and partnerships to help prepare students for college and career.
For instance, in 9th grade our elective courses follow a Career Technical Education (CTE) tract for computer science. Students take an introduction to computer science, they learn Python coding language, and then more advanced courses to successfully earn an Amazon Web Services (AWS) certification. In addition, in 10th grade they take a college engagement and career course which helps them make the decision whether they’ll go on the college track or stay on the CTE track at the high school. We have a partnership with Queensborough Community College that allows students to earn an applied associate degree in computer information systems or internet and information technology while they’re enrolled at the BTECH School.
These pathways are core components of the work we do in preparing our students for their future. Another core component is our focus on social and emotional learning (SEL).
The role of SEL
Time and time again, employer surveys have indicated that the most valuable skills employers are seeking when looking for prospective employees are non-academic skills like those social and emotional skills I mentioned earlier. This is why SEL programs are so important, and why this is such a big focus at BTECH.
To support SEL in our school, we partner with The Urban Assembly Resilient Scholars Program, an SEL model for middle and high school students. It helps schools support students’ social and emotional development through SEL curriculum, integrating and reinforcing SEL concepts throughout the day, and using the DESSA social and emotional learning assessment from Aperture Education to assess students’ SEL competence and track growth over time.
Our SEL work requires a lot of consistent collaboration. For example, we have a School Culture and Climate team that meets weekly to discuss how we’re doing in terms of supporting our students’ needs, and where we need to make changes.
We also partner with a program called Power Tools that connects students with teachers who have been designated as “Community Group Leaders.” The groups meet weekly to engage in activities that help students develop their SEL muscles and to ensure students are getting the support they need. In my role as a Community Group Leader, I facilitate conversations with students regarding any issues they are concerned with. This also helps me keep up with them if they’re having any problems–for instance, if they’ve been absent a lot or are having other issues. BTECH has an SEL team that includes students, teachers, and an administrator that meets every week to create content the groups discuss during their weekly Power Tools meetings.
Getting started with SEL
Our SEL work is equipping students with the non-academic skills they’ll need to succeed in college and career – and it has also been impactful in other ways, including improving our school climate and decreasing suspensions and infractions.
Below are some strategies other schools can use if they are looking to implement SEL programs:
- Encourage student voice. This is important to keep in mind. Students who feel their voices matter and who are exposed to other diverse voices are more likely to speak up and become advocates for themselves and others. This can help them be thoughtful participants in their communities and workplaces. At BTECH, some students know how to advocate for themselves if they don’t understand something or they need support, but others need more help. We use SEL as a way to help them develop the skills to do this. It’s also important for the schools to listen to students’ voices. For instance, our students requested a mental health club and an LGBTQ club last year and we were supportive in helping them get these clubs started. When students bring up issues or concerns, or want to create groups to provide support to classmates or raise awareness, it’s important that they be heard and supported. When schools support student voice it creates a climate where students are invested in making the school better.
- Assess students’ social and emotional skills. To help students grow their social and emotional competence, we need to understand where they’re starting from. The DESSA assesses students’ competence in areas such as self-awareness, responsible decision-making, and optimistic thinking. It provides reliable data that educators can use to identify students’ strengths and the areas in which they need additional support. Collecting this data is also important because it helps schools track student progress over time and helps determine if SEL programs are working.
- Find ways to get buy-in from teachers – and recognize them for their work. An SEL program works best when everyone is committed to it and enthusiastic about it. Here are a couple of things BTECH did to get buy-in: When a curious BTECH teacher wanted to explore SEL more, I sent her to an SEL symposium hosted by The Urban Assembly and she came back incredibly excited to get started. This enthusiasm is important, and it’s contagious. I’ve learned as a leader that getting educators to focus on SEL can’t be a top-down approach. You have to have people buying into the vision in order for it to succeed. We have a program where we recognize an “SEL teacher of the month” – selected by students. We hold an assembly during which the students announce the reasons why they nominated the teacher. This has a huge impact on those teachers. It meant a lot to them to have students say “you matter and you make a difference.”
- Make sure you have good partners. Find partners that support your goals. Just like it’s important to partner with colleges and businesses to help students prepare for college and career, it’s also important to find good partners for SEL. The Resilient Scholars program, along with the DESSA, were the perfect fit for us. The program has guided us through creating and sustaining a successful SEL program and the assessments help us understand students’ SEL strengths and needs so we can better support them.
Social and emotional skills are embedded in everything we do at BTECH and it’s been rewarding to see how this has resonated with students. Students are saying that “BTECH is a place where you learn SEL.” It’s gratifying to hear this because it shows our work is having an impact and it means we’re succeeding in equipping students with ALL of the skills they need to be successful in college, career, and in life.
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