George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL Now: Moving From Heaviness to Hope

Responding to violence and despair, Atlanta’s superintendent advocates a national program of social-emotional learning that would teach students to embrace empathy, communication, and respect.

September 21, 2016
© Debenport

Violence in America erupted in rapid-fire succession across three hot days in July. First, there were the July 5 and 6 police shooting deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castille in St. Paul. Then, on July 7, a gunman opened fire in Dallas, killing five police officers. In the search for the cause (and solution) to such violence, it's tempting to pick apart the details of each individual incident -- the victims' actions, the officers' words, the gunman's motives. But as I watched coverage of the ensuing protests around the country and heard the whirring of police helicopters over the protests in my own city of Atlanta, I reflected on the magnitude of these events beyond those details, the magnitude of the feelings and emotions they unleashed, and the magnitude of the solutions that we must undertake to prevent this sort of senseless violence from continuing.

Despair and Hope

These troubling times were made more real for me as the superintendent of a large urban school system in Georgia's capital city. And they hit close to home and my heart because of the reactions of two black males, both recent high school graduates.

One call-it-like-I-see-it tweet by Qwantayvious, my beloved mentee and now a freshman at University of Michigan, resonated particularly hard with me: 

I debated with him. How could he see himself in that tragic tweet? "You are not them," I argued. "That's not your life now or ever."

But he was adamant.

"When a cop sees me, they think I'm up to no good just because of how I look. I always have to watch what I do and say, but that's not enough. Simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time can get me killed."

Amadou, another mentee and sophomore at Stanford, had a similar reaction. My heart sank as he said that he felt safer working in a developing West African country over the summer than in America at this moment.

This is not the America that our children deserve. This is not how they should feel. I believe America is capable of better, and though these have been dark days, I remain optimistic that we can move from #HeavinesstoHope through the emerging work of districts across the country in social emotional learning.

In the wake of tragedies like these, many look to education as the solution to our country's most intractable problems and tensions -- tensions dating back centuries and continuing to plague us. And while I agree that a robust public education system is a critical component of solving these issues, it's important to recognize that increasing the facts our country's children know will not be enough. Understanding the function of the mitochondria, while important, does not help a young child understand how to empathize with a new immigrant in her class. Learning algebra and calculus does not help our high school students gain the skills necessary to de-escalate an argument with words rather than fists. Preparing for high-stakes testing does not provide our students practice in learning about and appreciating the vibrant diversity in the world around them. While I would never advocate for diminishing the pursuit of these and other academic endeavors, I feel the need to emphasize, in light of the heartbreaking events of this summer, that we must supplement those lessons with the equally important ones of social-emotional learning.

As Artistotle said, "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." And we are beginning to do just that.

SEL Strategy

Transformative work is under way with on-the-ground research and implementation to quell violence and fear. Ten urban districts are implementing social-emotional learning as part of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), and five states are just beginning their work as part of the Collaborating States Initiative, which will drive more balance between high-stakes testing and whole-child development.

Atlanta Public Schools has been rolling out SEL programming to 65 APS schools in partnership with CASEL over the past two years with plans to make it district-wide by fall 2017. We've made teaching SEL our priority and part of our overall turnaround strategy as a district. We also partnered with mental health providers to support children and families, and we expanded school-based health clinics in neighborhoods that lacked access to critical physical and mental care.

Building bridges between students, especially our African-American students, and School Resource Officers is part of another effort that we launched through reimagining safety and security. Our groundbreaking in-house police department, comprised of 68 officers, is aligned with the triad-model for school safety. These officers are mentoring, teaching, and policing in a way that is appropriately adapted for educational environments.

This work gives me incredible hope for APS children and families. Perhaps most inspiring is the fact that it can be replicated elsewhere. These are not just solutions for Atlanta; they are solutions for us all. There are many good folks on the front lines who have helped shape my thinking and proposed solutions originally detailed in my Call to Action blog.

But it's not possible to move the country on our own. It's imperative that our national leaders endorse and support the effort.

A National Plan

After the terrible summer of violence, CASEL's co-founder Tim Shriver, other CASEL leaders, Civic Enterprises' president and CEO John Bridgeland, and I met with U.S. Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C. to request very specific supports for the social and emotional development of our youth:

  • Recommendation of a Presidential Executive Order or Memorandum for collection and dissemination of best practice programming
  • Provision of guidance, resources, and tools to state and local education agencies
  • Leveraging existing funding streams
  • Advancing SEL as an employability strategy

It was just the first step to get national leaders talking about the most important issue of the day: making the country -- and the world -- better for young people now and in the future.

This work must start with strategies to stop violence in urban centers and schools, where adults and children alike live with chronic stress and elevated levels of cortisol, often remaining in fight, flight, or freeze mode. Students in these environments need support in developing critical life skills, and it is our moral imperative to provide it -- no different than providing the academic building blocks these students need to succeed.

A model plan for our nation is one that endorses teaching foundational academic and social skills for all students while providing adequate mental health intervention for students in need. These skills can be taught and these supports can be provided if we commit to the change.

As we left the USDE, I felt their receptiveness to a national solution, and we are eagerly awaiting their support as we proceed toward it. Centuries after our country's founding and decades after the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, it is past time to take action to create a kinder, braver, safer future for our children now and for generations to come.

So as we remember #AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastille, as we #PrayForDallas, it's time for a better hashtag for all of us:


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