Successful approach to learning lacks district-wide implementation in TPSWritten by Michael Stainbrook | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s Note: Toledo Free Press, United Way of Greater Toledo and 13abc’s “Bridges” with Doni Miller are profiling 12 education initiative programs in Northwest Ohio. This is the second story in the series.
Five years ago, teachers at East Side Central Elementary School adopted an innovative learning style in an attempt to improve students’ classroom experience. The results were promising, but widespread use of the approach has not yet been achieved in Toledo Public Schools (TPS).
The approach taken at East Side Central employs social and emotional learning (SEL), a process that stresses a multifaceted education of the complete student. Teachers help their pupils develop critical communication skills by facilitating an interactive classroom. Students are instructed how to engage each other positively and are given the opportunity to do so through various interpersonal exercises.
“You can call it a field in education, or you can call it a movement,” said educational consultant Jennifer Miller, who has 15 years of experience promoting SEL in schools.
“There’s been so much focus on academic press and high stakes tests that the socio-emotional lives of kids has been lost in the stress,” she said.
United Way of Greater Toledo Women’s Initiative first introduced SEL to TPS in spring 2005. The group hoped to reduce teenage pregnancy and boost graduation and attendance rates through more effective teaching techniques at the grade-school level.
“What they found more and more is that you have to start early to change either of those,” said Greg Braylock, Jr., an education specialist with United Way.
After learning of SEL, United Way contacted the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), which recommended Miller get involved.
The district warmly received SEL, as did the faculty at East Side Central. In order to implement the changes, 80 percent of the school’s teachers had to vote in favor of it. They approved it unanimously and began implementation during the 2006-07 school year. The school uses Responsive Classroom, a SEL-based curriculum.
“We wanted to certainly serve a low-income population, but also a really critical piece was willingness to participate,” Miller said. “They immediately said, ‘This aligns with our philosophy, and we’re willing to take this on.’ ”
So far, the results have been positive. School-wide attendance rose from 91 percent to 95 percent in four years, and suspensions dropped by nearly 8 percent in only one year. The school’s Ohio Department of Education report card has improved from “academic watch” to “effective” since SEL was introduced.
Many schools try various techniques to raise their effectiveness, Miller said, but SEL was East Side Central’s only school-wide reform.
“It’s hard to attribute in schools because they do so many different things, but this one I think we can point to it and say it’s a reason for success,” she said.
Parents have become more involved, too. When SEL was first implemented parents of East Side Central students volunteered 15 hours a year, Braylock said. That figure has since skyrocketed to 1,500 hours annually. East Side Central special education teacher Sue Rowe said the school has become friendlier, leading parents to become more willing to be involved.
“The whole climate of the building in general, it’s more kind,” Rowe said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in parent involvement.”
Despite the apparent benefit that SEL brings to classrooms, only one other TPS institution uses the approach school-wide. Sherman Elementary adopted SEL a year after East Side Central. Some other TPS instructors have completed the weeklong summer training session and stress this learning style, but no other schools have made broad changes to their curricula.
Implementing SEL requires the financial backing of the district. United Way and other organizations provide some funding for putting it to practice, but TPS must pick up the tab for some of the training its teachers undergo through the Responsive Classroom curriculum. In addition to the annual summer session, teachers receive a couple hours of supplemental instruction every month.
“The district has been very positive about Responsive Classroom and very interested. They’ve provided funds for the training to occur,” Rowe said.
But widespread implementation of SEL and the related curriculum has not occurred. Miller said the slow progress is a natural part of any change to academic practices. Rowe agrees.
“Things come and go. As teachers, we get pretty skeptical about [change],” Rowe said, adding that SEL is here to stay.
“The teachers realize that it’s not going away. The district has made an investment here.”
Miller has continued discussing the future of SEL with TPS officials. Before any other schools can adopt the learning style, another teachers’ vote must take place.
“We’re working with the district to determine what schools are next, what their priorities are,” she said. “It’s taken time. It’s been five years, but this year definitely we’ve had more conversations with the district at all levels.”
Two other large school districts in the state have taken steps to adopt SEL in their classrooms. Cleveland Public Schools has announced it plans to implement the approach district-wide, and U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (OH-17) secured a grant to explore SEL possibilities with Youngstown schools.
Braylock hopes similar results will come to Northwest Ohio in the near future.
“Individual teachers are definitely seeing the benefits of participation and are spreading the word,” he said. “At every level of leadership, we have support. We have partnership and buy-in that will make this type of initiative even stronger.”