Beyond academics

Tennessee to become national pioneer in creating social and emotional standards

PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

As the Tennessee Department of Education prepares to roll out new academic standards in math, English, social studies and science, it’s turning attention to creating the state’s first-ever set of standards in a completely new arena — social and emotional learning.

Tennessee will spend the next year on the task as one of eight states chosen to draft new standards focused on students’ emotional well-being and mental health in grades K-12.

That means setting benchmarks for what students should know or be able to do in each grade when it comes to skills such as decision-making, self-awareness, social awareness, self-control, and establishing and maintaining healthy relationships.

The idea is that setting grade-appropriate standards for social and emotional learning can help teachers help their students thrive both in and out of the classroom.

“These are the type of skills important for students to possess to be ready for college or career,” said Pat Conner, the department’s director of safe and supportive schools.

The standards will be developed in collaboration with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL, which announced this week that Tennessee will join the initiative along with California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Washington. The national organization previously has partnered with urban districts including Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools but is branching out into state policy to spread strategies around social and emotional learning.

Tennessee’s new standards will be drafted beginning Sept. 1 by a team that includes researchers, parents and educators. The final product will be reviewed next July by the State Board of Education.

“(The standards) will establish social and emotional learning as a priority in education,” said Conner, who has worked with at-risk youth in Tennessee for 30 years.

"Schools have to meet the needs of all students and the whole child, not part of the child."Pat Conner, Tennessee Department of Education

Strategies to bolster social and emotional skills include class meetings, breathing exercises, individual check-ins and safe spaces where students can go to calm down without feeling like they’re being punished.

“When a child goes off in class and a teacher understands what’s going on in that student’s life, she can help them manage that,” Conner said, adding that good teachers have been doing these things all along.

The initiative is the latest in the State Department’s efforts to support children beyond academics. In 2010, Tennessee was one of 11 states to win a grant for safe and supportive schools, and became the only state to develop a survey to evaluate “conditions for learning” in its schools including safety, supportive discipline practices and teacher-student relationships. Last year, the state released a toolkit for teachers seeking ways to incorporate social and emotional learning in their classrooms.

This year, the state also is rolling out a voluntary Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior framework that aims to quickly identify students’ behavioral problems so they can be matched with the proper supports.

“Tennessee has done a lot of great foundational work (around social and emotional learning),” Conner said. “I just think we’re at a very good spot right now to connect the dots with the work we’ve done in the past.”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”