More Grads, Happier Teachers, Fewer Referrals (Part 1)
Damonte Ranch High School (Nev.) was recently featured in a case study from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development for its approach to improving school climate by integrating social-emotional learning throughout its curriculum and school day. We spoke about the school's efforts with Darvel Bell, principal; Freeman Holbrook, assistant principal and director of the school's SEL program; and Sabrina Adkins, English teacher and SEL coordinator. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
This is part 1 of a two-part interview.
In the case study, Caring Communities: Linking School Culture and Student Development, we heard about how Damonte Ranch High School really started concentrating on your kids' social and emotional skills in an effort to increase graduation rates. How did you decide this was what your students needed?
DB: Several years ago, we saw from our data that our students were struggling to attain credit as freshmen and were rarely on track to graduate. So initially our focus was on developing our freshman seminars to focus on getting them acclimated and better prepared. This quickly evolved into introducing them to our social and emotional learning standards, along with the new School-Connect Curriculum.
We realized this was really effective, beyond what we had even anticipated - why not expand it to more of our students? We were no longer focusing on freshman, but freshmen and sophomores; then freshmen all the way through juniors; and now the focus is on getting 100 percent of our students this social and emotional support throughout their time here.
How did students and teachers first react to the changes you were making in your school?
DB: As a staff, we've always used data to drive our decision-making, in particular the data from our school climate survey, which gives us feedback not only from students and teachers but from parents and staff. And as we were beginning this work, we were looking at that survey data and seeing a disconnect between our students' perception of the climate and culture at Damonte Ranch and what our staff perceived, as well as a disconnect between how engaged students felt in class versus their teachers' perceptions. When our staff saw those numbers, there was a big jump in buy-in: we need to close that gap.
SA: I came to Damonte Ranch after they began to roll out this program, and the biggest thing that brought me here was the school climate. I remember thinking, "There's something about this school that is so welcoming. This is the kind of place I want to work at." This change that they had underway was a major draw for me as an educator.
DB: I will never forget a moment at an early all-staff meeting where the theme was building school community. We were talking about how to build community in our classrooms and other programs with our students when a veteran teacher stood up and said "It's great that we're figuring out how to build community for our students. But what are we doing with our own staff? I look across this room and I don't know half the people in here." That resonated with me and I'll never forget it. I thought if we're going to do this for kids, we have to do this with our teachers. So we began building community among our staff, and we now model SEL practices regularly during monthly staff professional development.
And how did you communicate these efforts to families and connect them with the work of your community partners?
DB: Honestly, our parent group has been the most receptive. We've helped them realize that there's still a strong focus on academics while making sure they understand that without the social-emotional skills, the academics don't come.
SA: As a teacher, the only pushback I experienced was really just questions - just like any other curriculum change, parents have questions about anything new. But what helped was that I was armed with that information and could answer just about any question.
FH: One thing that was important was to practice what we preach. One example is a program we called Drop Everything And Call. Each week we asked teachers to make a positive phone call home about an SEL topic. Those are the kinds of small touches that get parents and teachers both invested.
Photo: Students look for their name on the wall welcoming them back to school. (Courtesy of Damonte Ranch HS)