Q& A on Equity-Oriented Social & Emotional Learning

In late July of 2021, Catalyst:Ed convened 25 educational leaders and professional consultants from our provider network with deep expertise in social emotional learning (SEL) and/or family engagement to engage in a two-day conversation centered on how schools address the social and emotional wellness of their students, teachers, parents, and extended school community. This report summarizes the insights that surfaced during this two-day sprint. Below are highlights from a panel discussion with four school and district leaders navigating how to implement social and emotional wellness initiatives through an equity lens. 

Research indicates that when implemented effectively, high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs have positive impacts on children’s social, emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes as well as teacher practices and the culture and climate of schools” (Ramirez et al., 2021, p. 2)

Q1: Can you share a little bit about your school or system and its approach to social-emotional learning and family engagement?

Vera Triplet, Founder & CEO of Noble Schools (New Orleans, La.): We are a single site, Type 2 school, which in Louisiana means that we take students from across parish lines. Our school has a couple of foundational pillars: SEL, social justice, and closing the achievement gap. SEL has been a part of our programming. Before we were even a school, we started as an after-school program and summer programming. And so the way that manifests itself in our building is our students take SEL class as a part of their core curriculum. There is an SEL class in every grade at least once a week. We start every day with yoga and meditation. And we use meditation as an integral part of our disciplinary processes here at the school; we do not suspend or expel students here at our school for any reason at any time. But because of that policy, we have what we call radical parent participation and radical parent communication. Our parents have to be available to us to work in partnership to handle any issues that we might have with their children. So that is just a little bit about us and our founding.

Denise Alexander, Principal & Executive Director of The Bronx Charter School for Children (New York, N.Y.): We are in the poorest congressional district in the United States of America. And to think of that being in New York, it was very shocking when I got here. And to see what it manifests, or how it manifests is not so much shocking anymore, but something that we are cognizant of, and we’re proactive in trying to support our families and kids. We serve a population of approximately 600 students. I think we’re 99% or 100% Title I; most of our students are classified as economically disadvantaged. And the majority of our scholars are second or come from homes where English is not the first language, primarily Spanish. Still, we are also seeing an influx of different regions from West Africa. We talk about the whole child at my school, and we also talk about the whole family. The more successful the child or better options are there for the children.

And so we take care of our families; we take care of our families by providing clothes by making sure that there’s food in their cupboards, even if the child does not attend our school. If there’s an infestation of bedbugs, we get new furniture in that place. With domestic violence cases, we go to court with mothers who need support; we get them into safe housing. We do whatever we need to do to help change the trajectory of their lives. SEL is fluid in the sense that we are meeting kids where they are, and that changes.

Kisa Hendrickson, Chief Engagement  & Partnership Officer of Highline Schools (Burien, Wash.): Forty-five percent of our student population is Latino. The other groups represented include African American and Asian Pacific Islander, and we have over 100 languages spoken in our district. About 69% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. When it comes to our approach to family engagement, we believe that it starts with relationships. Having relationships with our families, knowing who they are, and their values and beliefs so that we as an organization can reflect that in our approach to teaching and learning and partnerships. We believe that our parents are our children’s first teachers. They have a fund of knowledge, an understanding of their cultures and communities, and can help us understand who they are and their children’s needs. And that leads to social-emotional learning—it’s really about investing in the whole child. When a child comes to school, they come to school with their experiences and home and neighborhood situations. And a lot of those things can distract from learning. So it’s really about helping our students understand what they’re feeling and what they need to do to get to the best place they can learn. 

Also, when most of your staff does not reflect the cultures and communities from which the students come, we can unintentionally perpetuate dominant cultural beliefs about what good behavior looks like and how students are supposed to show up in school. 

D’Andre Weaver, Superintendent of Schools for DeSoto ISD (DeSoto, Texas): We’re a small kind of suburban community, just south of Dallas, where we are predominantly students of color, and uniquely, most of our staff is of color, which is rare. But with that said, we’re about 75% economically disadvantaged, yet our community has an income, a median income higher than the state average. We believe in this idea of a whole family, whole child, and whole person in general approach. Often schools just get relegated to focusing on one thing, and we don’t even do that one thing well, but we’ve decided that to do that one thing well, we need to do something bigger, and that’s just really caring for people. When I first started as superintendent, I did a bunch of empathy tours—eating in people’s homes, going into barbershops and beauty salons; we got interested in the community. And we just had a lot of listening and learning. And what I learned is that this community has strong ownership of our schools. And yet the problems that we’re trying to solve are much larger than the school district can solve. 

We think about family engagement as ownership. So in what ways can we create ownership of the system’s work and their students’ learning. One of the things we put in place was it’s a constraint for me that I cannot make a major decision or do anything significant in our district without first engaging deeply with parents, students, community members, and teachers in a process. We try to create ownership by actually sharing responsibility for the work. And that’s been a huge hit because now more people are involved. We meet once a month, separately, with four different stakeholder groups. And they own those meetings and agendas that bring a sense of ownership and engagement. And it’s everything from lesson plans to how we structure our schedule to teaching and learning to the lab day initiative to closing a school to reinvest those resources into students. 

Q2: We are coming out of a pandemic, and there are some day-to-day realities that we have to deal with as it relates to our students, our families, and our communities. Where are you seeing these realities come up against this broader vision for success, and how are you thinking about navigating these tensions?

Vera: Particularly in New Orleans, we’ve had a lot of what I refer to as sort of global challenges. We’ve had Katrina, we’ve had COVID, and we have, like many cities, an uptick in crime and violence over the past three to five years. So several different things impact our students daily. One of the things that we did last year because we were doing both in-person and distance learning simultaneously, is we started the year first with the adults by acknowledging some of the hesitations around just being back in the building and around other people and that fear of becoming ill and perhaps dying, and giving teachers space to say, “Hey, listen, I don’t feel comfortable being back in this space.” or “I do under this set of circumstances.” 

So we didn’t just start the school year like we normally would, we started the school year by first hearing from them about what they had been experiencing over that period since school had closed so abruptly, the previous March, and we wanted to make sure that they knew that our expectations were changed as a result of what we had all been through. And that yes, we were going to be given some graces that we probably had not in the past. But those graces were necessary based on what they had been through and what we had all been through in sort of this shared tragedy and trauma over the past year. And what that did is it led to, I think, more openness from students about how they felt about some of the losses and their fears. So there were several different issues that we needed to tackle before we could even get to the academic piece. 

Denise: We’ve been plugged in with our family’s needs; we’ve been providing assistance, social work, and mental and therapeutic help over the summer. And that’s now extending to our staff. So we’ve never had counselors before, to the number that we will just for staff. I think we are being very intentional about how we’re using our time, next year, professional development time, what have you, but to not move aside from some of the traditional topics. I’m trying to create a safe space for staff and a caring environment because they are caregivers and their work is tremendous.

D’Andre: We’re trying to create spaces for every person in our environment to heal. There is a massive need to accelerate learning for children academically. We have aligned every person’s evaluation, excluding our maintenance and custodial staff, to our student outcome goals. For these strategies, these approaches, frameworks, and all of our great ideas to take root, you need consistent time and intentionality. And that is a massive tension right now that I’m feeling as a superintendent of a traditional public school—it is not necessarily just carving out that time, but keeping that time for the reason we designed it. And I think that that is going to be a challenge throughout the year. 

Kisa: The tension around the loss of academics over the last 18 months is real. I feel like we cannot be all things to everyone as a school system. We only have so much capacity, so many resources, and areas of expertise. So we will be starting the school year doing a panorama. I think about this idea of proximity to pain. Because so many of our students, my team comes from the community anyway. I know what they’re experiencing is very much similar to what our communities are experiencing in terms of COVID. And I just saw the real-life impact on my team, and knowing that our staff is going through so many of the same issues that our families and communities are going through. So just having that awareness and sensitivity. We, too, have started an adult wellness support team to support the needs of our adults so that they can be their best selves. 

What does social-emotional learning look like? How do we provide extended academic opportunities for our students? We’re wanting to invest in our young learners. We know many of our students missed their transition years.

Q3: What’s your call to action for other practitioners responsible for implementing social-emotional learning and family engagement initiatives in their schools or districts?

D’Andre: I identified the one or two things that you positively want to put all your chips into and invest in doing that thing exceptionally well. We’re trying to determine exactly what’s the one thing that will be most impactful for our students and our families in this regard, and we’re trying to over-resource with all the funds. So I would just encourage people to identify the most critical areas specific to your community, and they’ll all end with those. 

Vera: We should never forget that education is social justice work, and at the end of the day, we need to be very, very intentional in everything that we do—beginning with the end in mind. What is the thing that you want to happen after all of your practical actions and work are done? What is the outcome that you’re looking for? Work from there to make sure that you can achieve that goal. And it doesn’t matter what age group you’re working with or race or ethnicity—it’s all social justice work, and I think that’s how we need to look at it.

Denise: Do not be afraid to dive into an approach to develop or discuss race, class, and culture in your work because it directly impacts expectations and how they are communicated to students and families. No matter how good any program is, how great your schedule is, or the curriculum that teachers have, it will be a repeating cycle if those issues are not addressed. So have the courage to open up space where those conversations can be ongoing and talk about that with your staff.

Kisa: No matter what we’re doing, no matter what time we’re in, it is critical to stay connected to our students, families, and community to know if what we’re doing is working. Is our approach working? Is it resonating? Is it landing? Staying connected with our families and students, and community to make sure that it’s meeting their needs is a priority.

Follow this link to learn more about what these school leaders are doing to address SEL and family engagement needs through an equity lens. You can also download our full synopsis and an overview of the two-day convening, including principles for equity-oriented SEL, and watch video excerpts from the panel discussion above.

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