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More Grads, Happier Teachers, Fewer Referrals (Part 2)

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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 2 of a two-part interview. Click here for part 1.

A lot of your work has also focused on changing your discipline practices. Can you tell us about that?

DB: In 2008 we were barely graduating 50% of our kids. Since then, we've boosted those numbers to the point that now, we're anticipating a 95% graduation rate this year. One of the biggest factors has been a program meant to reduce the number of kids getting referred to the office for discipline issues. Rather than having kids get sent out by teachers to the front office and miss valuable instruction time, we bring the administrator to the classroom. As a result, you have students that are spending more time in the classroom and less time in the office, and it's helping the student to build a relationship with that teacher that would be much different than if they were just stewing in the office for 45 minutes.

FH: In the old days when you have a disruption in a classroom, you send the kid to the principal. Then they're out of the room. Technically, the disruption is gone - but we felt like that was just sweeping the problem under the rug. So we created Discipline at The Door. Teachers can radio the office and an administrator will be at their door in under two minutes. At that point they have three choices. One is for the administrator to briefly take over the room so the teacher can talk to the student one-on-one. That's a huge opportunity to work on social-emotional skills, and we tell that to the kids. But they also have the option for me to talk one-on-one with the student, or to remove the student from the room entirely. Some of the best conversations and relationship-building has taken place right there at the door.

DB: And the other big difference is that we went from 2,400 documented referrals in 2013 to roughly 650 this past year.

Can you tell us the #1 piece of advice you would give to other schools looking to connect students' social and emotional skills and school culture?

DB: Go slow before going too fast. What we've heard from a lot of other schools is that initially - even if your end goal is to embed social and emotional learning throughout the day -- you have to structure some time in your schedule to get it off the ground. At Damonte Ranch we started with a program where for 45 minutes each day, groups of students meet with one specific teacher. That teacher is responsible for those students' success throughout the whole year. So "no child goes unknown," if you will. From the teachers' perspective, the idea is that you're responsible for your kids' success and you give them that support. We tried to ensure that every kid has an advocate in the building. 

I would also add that providing social-emotional learning training to all staff, along with the SEL School Connect curriculum, has been instrumental in the development of our program.

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FH: Social-emotional learning has got to be 100%. It's got to involve your staff, your custodial crew, students, teachers - make sure you're creating a sense of community and culture and focusing on skills that are important. It takes time to do that. You want to get to a point where every interaction has an SEL component, and getting to that point takes time. And you should expect that there will be bumps.

DB: It really does involve everybody. We include 100% of staff from custodians to kitchen staff as far as getting them trained and familiarized with our vision.

SA: And that's the biggest difference, having seen this at other schools. It's truly schoolwide. It's in every professional development and every interaction. At a certain point, you don't even notice you're doing SEL anymore.

What work do you still need to do? What challenges do you still face?

FH: One thing we're always working on is embedding social-emotional learning in different disciplines. Just to give one example: we have an amazing math teacher here where every day, you're getting a math lesson and an SEL lesson at the same time. She's utilizing this material every single lesson. I want to get all staff to that point. That takes time, it takes training, but it also takes getting teachers in the room with those folks who can model it.

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