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It's Time to Go All-In on Social and Emotional Learning

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By Meria Carstarphen

Public school districts like mine have many competing priorities we must balance with limited resources—time, people, money—on a daily basis. Educators are constantly working to meet various performance measures and targets to ensure that students are prepared to graduate ready for college and career. Then there are families who need wrap around supports for physical and mental health, housing, food, clothing, and other basic needs. Neighborhoods are often in flux, and those changes can affect our sense of community and make it hard for community partners to be sure that their investments and resources will have an impact, leading to meaningful and sustainable change.

As Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and as someone who has served in this role in other urban school districts, I know firsthand about these challenges. I also know that we can overcome those challenges with the broad and diverse support of the community. 

In APS, we strive to live our mission every day: 

With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.

This means we must focus on both the academic success and the well-being of the whole child. 

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In my role as a Commissioner with the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (SEAD), I've been fortunate to work with some of the best minds in the nation on how children and adults best learn and grow. This Commission—made up of practitioners, researchers, partners, parents, youth, and funders—has produced research and testimonials that show that the key to student academic success is to ensure that students' social and emotional needs are met.

I can't say that I knew how meaningful the impact could be when I first started my role as a superintendent. But this research is now my guiding star for my work as a leader, both here in Atlanta and in my previous district of Austin, Texas. As a SEAD commissioner, I am encouraged by what I have learned from research on how to better help students and positively impact their academic success. We're making progress on our path toward becoming a high-performing school district where students love to learn, educators inspire, families engage, and the community trusts the system. Here is a sample of what we're doing and seeing in APS: 

  • As part of a $7.5 million grant awarded to APS from The National Institute of Justice in partnership with Georgia State and WestEd in Fall 2015, we were able to onboard our own school resource officers (SROs). These officers work to promote school safety by serving as law enforcement officers, teachers, and counselors with an emphasis on building and maintaining positive relationships between themselves and the entire school community. In two years, we have seen a 34% decrease in student arrests in school -- a positive trend in breaking the school to prison pipeline. And in a survey of principals and assistant principals this past spring, the majority of respondents said they felt safe or very safe across the board at their schools, most especially during school hours, where safety ratings were very high. They see the positive impact of having SROs who form relationships and communicate with parents, students, administrators, and teaching staff, and they are grateful.

  • We are beginning to see a positive and meaningful change in our organizational culture as evidenced by performance measures in climate and culture. We saw a 13% decrease in employee relations complaints filed from 2014 to 2017, and average absences per teacher decreased by 7% from 2015 to 2017. APS also has seen the number of engaged employees increase from 29% in 2016 to 40% in 2018, with employees giving feedback on their work environment, work expectations, and the feeling that someone cares about their opinion. Principals and assistant principals led the way with a 12 percentage point increase as engaged employees last school year. When the leadership of a school is engaged, it cascades to the teachers.

  • Our discipline practices have changed for the better.  For example, we revised our student behavior code to be more restorative and progressive rather than overly punitive and we've provided principals with school behavior support plan templates that are better aligned to SEL best practices.  We are seeing the beginning fruits of our labor as a result of these shifts. APS is no longer designated as a district that over-suspends African American students with disabilities - a true point of pride. In 2018, our overall average number of suspension days decreased; the same trend held for students with disabilities and for African American students. This is something we are glad to see.

And while we can't demonstrate a direct correlation between our social and emotional learning efforts and these outcomes, we are also encouraged by our latest state assessment results and graduation rates, which show that the district is starting to see higher gains to-date on state standardized tests in the percentage of students who scored proficient and above across all subjects in grades 3-8. We made progress in narrowing the performance gap between APS students and students across the state of Georgia in all four tested subjects. Our students' performance on these assessments is encouraging because long-term progress can't be achieved without building the foundation at the elementary and middle school levels. Finally, four-year cohort graduation rates have increased from 59% in 2014 to 79.9% in 2018. Very promising indeed!

My hope is that we all implement the best practices that speak to how children, youth, and adults best learn and work together. I call on everyone to join our school districts—urban, suburban, and rural—in helping us build strong students who will become stronger adults and more engaged, productive residents and citizens, no matter their zip code or demographic. We now know what works; we just need to do it.

I know I'm down for that cause!

Dr. Meria Carstarphen is the Superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools.

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