Social Emotional Learning – A Proven Game-Changer for APS Students, Staff

LoveIsTruth without hope is failure, but hope without truth is fantasy. It’s only in those moments when you are able to confront truth at its harshest, and hope at its most powerful, that you believe dramatic change is possible. – Sen. Mike Johnston

For all of us on Sunday, we witnessed the mass shooting in Orlando. The harsh truth is that we as a nation aren’t doing enough to teach young people empathy for others, how to establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. That’s the heart of the definition of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

I spent that day, acting on my beliefs, doing all I could to show our students – and our staff – that from where I sit in leadership, that I care and value their diversity. I want them all to feel safe, respected and supported in our schools.

image3Later that same evening, I was inspired by the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the play Hamilton and referenced the tragedy in accepting his Tony Awards. He reminded us that “nothing here is promised, not one day.”

This sober reminder means we must find a way to end these cycles of intolerance, bigotry, hate and violence. What if every day a child gets the chance to start building positive relationships? What if that child also learned how to express empathy and to make responsible decisions?

We can begin this work in schools.

When Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) came together to host an SEL breakfast on Wednesday with potential partners, we did so with hope and enthusiasm.

After all, CASEL co-founder and Special Olympics icon Tim Shriver was there with us at the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and shared poignant stories such as this one.


CASEL chair and co-founder Tim Shriver is leading a national SEL movement, and APS is with him!

Gary Dixon, president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation – developer of the inspiring billboards with brief messages of aspiration and hope from celebrities and heroes – debuted a video about APS.

And we positioned APS’s effort to be part of a nationwide SEL movement to give students – no matter their backgrounds, home experiences or ZIP codes – the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Our kids must see positive relationships being modeled and reinforced by the adults in our district, so that they deepen their abilities to survive and thrive in any environment.

But in my experiences as an urban superintendent, our kids’ environments can be particularly challenging, including here in Atlanta, where students come into our schools without these foundational skills. Research measuring adverse childhood experiences or ACE show that many students – especially those in our urban settings who are economically disadvantaged – live with chronic stress, meaning that elevated levels of cortisol are normal, and they remain in the “fight, flight, or freeze” mode all the time.

The child, too often, has become the default adult and head of household. They make sure the family is fed. They serve as breadwinners. They take care of their younger brothers and sisters, making sure they do their homework and go to school.

The good news is that research has shown us that SEL skills can be taught, and we can take crucial steps to give the students the tools to be successful in school, work and life. After schools make a strong commitment to SEL, the data shows as much as an 11 percentile-point gain on standardized achievement tests and improved attitudes about self, others and school. And it benefits all of us economically; studies have shown there is an $11 return on every dollar spent on the education of the whole child.

Atlanta’s students can master these skills and develop their hearts and smarts to become better people than we could ever be.

These are some of the many reasons why APS has made SEL a district priority. These skills are foundational to the long-term success of our students. If students can persevere, set goals, overcome obstacles and develop healthy relationships, we know they will have a fighting chance.

Last summer, the Atlanta Board of Education endorsed the CASEL partnership to support social-emotional learning within the district. APS SEL Cohort 1 consisted of 25 schools on 26 campuses, which includes all schools in the Carver and South Atlanta clusters, B.E.S.T. Academy, Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy, and all middle schools.

This fall, we will roll out our SEL initiative to additional schools, totaling 65 APS campuses that will include Pre-K through 12th grade, including alternative schools. We need full district-wide implementation by the fall of 2017. It’s going to require that all of you join APS in the journey to support social-emotional learning.


Telling Atlanta and the nation that SEL Matters! From left, Gary Dixon, Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Tim Shriver, Alicia Philipp 

If we all love our kids and we all love Atlanta, having a proven strategy to improve the health and well-being of its citizenry is a game changer.

“Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love cannot be killed or swept aside. – Lin-Manuel Miranda

I still believe that love will triumph, and APS is doing its part in the fight to ensure that love – and our beautiful children – are not swept aside! SEL can help us give our students (and us) hope – at  its most powerful – and the skills to create a kinder, braver world to come.

SEL matters.


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