School and District Efforts Align for SEL Results

Nestled in south-central Austin, TX, Cunningham Elementary School serves 441 students, about 57 percent of whom are Hispanic, 28 percent White, and 15 percent students of color.152,153 More than two in three students (69 percent) are eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program.154 This diverse elementary school has recognized the importance of SEL for many years, but lacked a cohesive program, implementing only diffuse or informal pieces. Now, with support from the district, teachers and administrators are fitting those pieces together to create a unified approach to SEL, embedded in all aspects of the school. once a month, during staff meeting, the principal has faculty share SEL best practices, develop schoolwide SEL activities, and discuss the importance of the whole child focus in education. Teachers also work to identify academic areas in which SEL could easily be integrated into existing lessons. For example, the art teacher works with students to make posters, strategically placed throughout the school, that remind students of strategies they can use to solve their problems and interact positively with their peers.

Cunningham also has “peace paths,” where students in conflict begin on either side, following the step-by-step instructions on each successive square until they find a resolution and meet in the middle. The path is available both inside and outside the school so that in lessons or in play, social and emotional skills are easily practiced. The “peace path” was also shared with parents during an SEL-dedicated coffee session hosted by the school’s principal. Parents reacted positively, asking to schedule a larger PTA meeting that would focus on teaching parents more strategies for practicing social and emotional competencies with their kids in their own homes. To evaluate the effectiveness of its SEL programming, Cunningham Elementary participates in the districtwide school climate survey and administers its own playground survey to assess student perceptions and growth.

Cunningham is part of Austin Independent School District (AISD), one of eight big- city districts nationwide collaborating with CASEL to implement SEL systemwide. AISD is in its second year of implementation. Led by the district’s Social and Emotional Learning Department in partnership with CASEL’s Collaborating Districts Initiative, 57 Austin schools have started implementing systemic SEL, with the goal that all 122 schools will be implementing within the next three years.155

AISD relies on a collaborative approach, providing training in self-management and conflict resolution to many of its school personnel, including cafeteria monitors and classified employees. It aims to create a common vocabulary and ways of interaction throughout the district so teachers, administrators, staff, and students across grade levels can successfully articulate their thoughts and feelings, strengthening relationships and problem-solving skills. All elementary, middle, and high schools also have their own SEL campus facilitator (an on-site champion who works to build capacity within schools for SEL).

The SEL department is developing a districtwide parent series to teach parents about the importance of SEL and familiarize them with the common language   so that they, too, may reinforce learning at home and provide guided practice. AISD also uses the Second Step program in its elementary and middle schools and School Connect in its high schools. These age-appropriate curricula are specifically designed to help students develop positive social and emotional competencies.156 In addition to these districtwide initiatives, each school has its own unique strategies, evaluating their resources to design SEL practices that work best for them and their students.

After these first two years, AISD administrators assert that the change in school climate is palpable. More students are on task and engaged during lessons.

Discipline referrals are down and student interactions are more positive. The district is using these observable shifts as evidence of positive change to try to help secure increased funding for SEL programs by giving potential donors tours of their schools.157 The principal of Cunningham advises educators throughout the nation to “run to get SEL and run fast,” because it can make a difference in your schools and your students’ lives.