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Social-emotional learning’s gains at 109 LAUSD schools could end as funding runs out

Mike Szymanski | November 14, 2016



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Coco Morimoto using Second Step, an SEL program, at Beachy Elementary. (Courtesy: LAUSD)

A yearlong revival of social-emotional learning at 109 LA Unified schools is in danger of being shut down because the district doesn’t have money earmarked to continue the programs, district officials confirmed.

Concerns about losing this fundamental tool in learning led LA Unified’s Commission on Human Relations, Diversity and Educational Equity to vote Thursday evening to support social-emotional learning and expand it to every school in the district. They expect to send their recommendation to the school board at the December meeting.

“I strongly endorse social-emotional learning as an essential foundation for nurturing safe and affirming schools, and for student success and academic achievement,” said Allan Kakassy, a commission member who introduced the resolution. “Furthermore, there’s evidence indicating SEL can impact disproportionality in special education, and, also, reduction of the achievement gap.”

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Lori Vollandt, coordinator of the Health Education programs.

The schools most affected are on the CORE Waiver (California Office of Reform Education) list, which was established by the state to allow LA Unified to take a “more holistic approach to school improvement” at underperforming schools. And there’s a list of 60 more schools that are requesting similar social-emotional services next year, said Lori Vollandt, coordinator of the district’s Health Education Programs Unit in charge of the district’s SEL programs.

“There is a lack of funding identified for these programs to continue next year,” Vollandt said. “There is no district-wide plan at this time. The funding could go away. It’s gone away before.”

For the past year, the district used $3.5 million in funding for CORE schools to hire half a dozen staff members to train teachers in SEL programs at the 109 schools. At schools that use SEL programs, staff report improvements in attendance and a downturn in suspensions. Higher test scores are expected to follow.

But LA Unified continues to face a looming financial crisis due in part to declining enrollment and pension and benefits commitments that could lead to an estimated $573 million deficit by 2018-19. While some departments are being asked to show what their budgets would look like with a 30 percent reduction, some school advocates say spending on SEL is worth the expense.

Using SEL to enhance classroom instruction is part of a growing national trend. The superintendent and school board members have talked about the benefits in public meetings, and the district provided this statement: “SEL is supported across the LAUSD through a broad effort that encompasses multiple district divisions. The Division of Instruction is in the process of identifying available funds to support all district schools with this work in the future.”

Last week’s passage of Prop. 55 could help boost SEL funding, but nothing will be finalized until the budget is put together in May. That is why it’s important to let the school board members know how important it is for the classroom and prioritize it early, Kakassy said.

For two years, two pilot schools using a program called Second Step Social Emotional Learning have developed a track record of  fewer campus conflicts and a decrease in suspension rates. Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School Principal Akida Kissane-Long said after a year of using the program, school suspensions dropped from 267 to 14, which she attributed directly to the program.

“I know that the district has a lot of things that are required of the school and of teachers and this is just one more thing,” said Kissane-Long in a video about their SEL successes. “But please know that you’re investing in something that has got a very far-reaching impact by creating an atmosphere where children can be safe, where children can self-regulate, where teachers can feel like they can provide children with tools that they need to be productive and healthy, and have children focus on the right thing which is learning.”

At the other pilot school, Beachy Elementary School in Arleta, second-grade teacher Coco Morimoto put off using the SEL program but was finally convinced by her principal to try it. “As soon as I started doing the lessons, I saw a huge change in my students,” Morimoto said.

The SEL programs help model good citizenship and train students to make choices that would avoid risky behaviors such as angry outbursts, drug use, violence, bullying and dropping out of school, Vollandt said. The training includes teaching instructors how to deal with emotional situations and involves class instruction, student engagement and parent involvement. It is particularly timely with the volatility of the results of the presidential election and student fears, Vollandt noted.

“These are precautionary programs that address the whole child and how they should deal with what is going on in the world around them,” Vollandt said. “It helps teach the children how to get along with people and control their emotions and thoughts.”

The programs have been voluntary for district schools and are initiated by the principals. The demand is higher, though, as principals share their successes with each other, Vollandt said.

“In some places, this use of social-emotional learning is very strong, and in some places it is nonexistent,” Vollandt said. “Outside of the schools that now have it, it is very spotty in the district.”

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Susan Ward Roncalli

For the past 25 years, LA Unified has been at the forefront of introducing social-emotional learning into the classroom, using different names and strategies for the programs. For example, in 2002 one successful program called IMPACT dealt with students who had substance abuse problems. School board President Steve Zimmer first worked with Vollandt in the IMPACT program when he was a district employee at Marshall High School. Zimmer, Superintendent Michelle King and Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson have all voiced their support for SEL programs at past school board meetings.

The district has focused on implementing restorative justice, which is under the SEL umbrella, but that program “does not train teachers how to  appropriately refer kids,” Vollandt explained.  “Teachers have to be trained to know how to refer and support someone who has been sexually assaulted and is living in an alcoholic family and they need to do no harm,” Vollandt said. “The funding for those programs all went away, and it may go away again unless there is a commitment by the district.”

Most of the funding evaporated six years ago and Vollandt said it would take about $13 million to restore SEL programs at every school in the district.

“This is early learning that we need to teach from pre-K,” Vollandt said. “Restorative justice is intervention. This is prevention, and at the moment there is zero funding to continue the programs in health education.”

Some members of the district’s Human Relations Commission went to see SEL at work in the classroom over the past two weeks before approving their recommendation to the school board. Also, board member Scott Schmerelson went to Limerick Avenue Elementary School in Winnetka and saw teachers in action, while board member Ref Rodriguez passed a resolution emphasizing the SEL lessons of Character Day, which teaches children about people with positive character traits.

“The social-emotional learning that I experienced at Limerick Elementary School was amazing,” Schmerelson said about his school visit. “I was participating in a fifth-grade ‘community building circle’ and witnessing another circle in a kindergarten class where young people had the opportunity to express their feelings and emotions in an open and receptive environment. It was the kind of whole child development and growth that will benefit our students, families and communities.”

Corinne Ho, who represents Schmerelson’s office on the Human Relations Commission, said she witnessed firsthand the program and sees the importance of it for the district.

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Character Day, one of the social-emotional learning events this year.

 “I was very impressed with the SEL curriculum used in different classes and I would say it is a fundamental element for children to learn,” said Ho, whose daughter has also benefitted from SEL programs at Hale Charter Academy in Woodland Hills. “I am concerned that there may not be enough funding, but it is a small price to pay to keep students engaged in school and keep them from dropping out.”
Ho said she couldn’t speak for the commission, but many of the members have visited classrooms to see it in action and were impressed enough to present it to the school board at a future meeting, probably December, so they could push for an emphasis on SEL in the classroom.

Six years ago, the district had a budget of $16 million for social-emotional learning programs throughout the district, but that was cut. Last June, the state’s CORE waiver dollars allowed Vollandt to expand the programs again, but that was only for one year.

Susan Ward Roncalli, a doctoral candidate and teacher for 30 years at LA Unified, was hired to help with SEL training for teachers. She said that in the past she had witnessed firsthand the benefits for teachers and students at Eagle Rock High School where she taught English.

“Social-emotional learning is a big umbrella and our work is about prevention,” said Roncalli, who noted there were 22 support groups in her school alone during the height of the SEL programs. The programs helped students with substance problems, parent abuse issues, reducing suspensions, children of alcoholics, teen parenting, foster youth, grief counseling, sexual identity issues and more. The programs also helped train teachers how to handle issues. “Our school was not in a rough neighborhood like in some other areas of the district, but we still needed these kinds of support resources. There still has to be an infrastructure set up in the schools, and that will support learning.”

For example, when a district-wide project asked for all 7th-graders to write short biographies of their lives and their neighborhoods, Roncalli knew that some of the teachers were ill-prepared to deal with the serious issues that would crop up in the student papers. Stories of abuse, drugs and emotional issues kept school counselors busy for weeks after the assignment. “Teachers need to be able to understand how to deal with these situations,” Roncalli said.

Vollandt added, “The district always has good intentions, but that was an example where it wasn’t fully thought out, because teachers were unable to know how to handle the issues that came up with their students.”

What is missing to continue the SEL programs is a constant stream of funding, and schools individually cannot do it on their own unless they get grants. It’s also tough for a large school district with more than 1,000 school sites to find funding for such a large district. They were able in the past to get piecemeal funding from the Every School Achieves Act, LCFF funding,  Discipline Foundation Policy, Safe School Plan and the state’s Wellness Policy among others. They are fully aware of the impending budget deficit predicted for next year, but Vollandt said the overall cost is a small price to pay for longterm investments in student learning.

“We are building the bedrock for learning,” Vollandt said. “Empathy is the bedrock of all social-emotional learning. This district was amazingly progressive and at the forefront of introducing programs into the curriculum, and then suddenly the funding went away.”

Once a curriculum, such as Second Step, is in place, it may only cost the salary of one employee dedicated to training others for the program at each school site to maintain it, Vollandt said. The Second Step program is a complete kit set up for each classroom and teaches children how to control their emotions with more complex relationships.

“These are dollars that are very well spent and investments for the future,” Vollandt said. “There wouldn’t be a need for restorative justice if we had SEL programs in every school.”

One of the best partners for SEL is the after-school program Beyond the Bell which uses SEL on the playground and in their homework study time. Beyond the Bell staff are trained to get children to calm down if they are anxious or ready to angrily confront someone. Vollandt said, “The young teachers suck this up and they have the scope and infrastructure to push this out.”

If a charter school wants advice and help with certain programs, Vollandt said she will advise and offer materials, but depending on the program, her staff cannot go to a charter site with the risk of violating federal funding agreements.

“I would love to send charter teachers over for professional development because kids are kids and they are all our kids,” Vollandt said. “I am hamstrung by Title 1 restrictions, however.”

Vollandt said recent national studies show how important SEL skills are in early education, and how using them can increase test scores by 11 percentage points. A study by the  Economic Policy Institute analyzed more than 200 social-emotional interventions throughout the country that targeted children from kindergarten through high school. It showed increases in cognitive skills, as well as “productivity and collegiality at work, positive health indicators and civic participation.”

In October, the American Institutes for Research found that when districts support SEL even with modest use of the programs, the discipline and grades improved if there is a district-wide implementation. The AIR is in its fifth year of “evaluating a first-ever initiative to promote district-wide integration of SEL into the core activities of large urban districts.” That kind of attitude is ripe for LA Unified, Vollandt said.

The study involved school districts in Anchorage, Austin, Cleveland, Chicago, Nashville, Oakland, Sacramento and Washoe County, Nevada. They showed consistent gains in school climate, and four of six districts showed improvements in third-graders’ social and emotional competence.

At the moment, to get all the schools into the SEL training, it would cost an estimated $13 million, Vollandt said. The principals have to buy in to the program, the teachers must collaborate, it is all in line with Common Core standards, but most importantly, the district has to emphasize SEL as a priority, she added.

“It is well worth the investment, and will be much better for education overall.”

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