Chicago Public Schools is in a state of financial crisis, struggling under the weight of previous borrowing and pension debt while the state can offer no reprieve due to its own fiscal crisis in Springfield.
But while the district has laid off art and music teachers, librarians and counselors — and cut after-school programming — it has maintained a commitment to social emotional learning that dates back to 2012. The CPS Office of Social and Emotional Learning provides training and coaching to school leaders as well as teachers, and the district offers incentives to schools pursuing a Supportive Schools Certification.
The district increased spending on SEL resources from $8.4 million in 2013 to $11.2 million in 2016, according to official figures.
Janice Jackson, the district’s chief education officer, was a high school principal when CPS initiated its focus on social emotional learning. At the time, the suspension rate was 24 students per 100 and the graduation rate was abysmal, with little more than half of students receiving their diplomas.
Jackson said the new focus was born out of necessity.
“There was a need to figure out how do we support children so that they come to school, and when they do come, how do they get what they need to access instruction in the classroom,” Jackson said.
The turnaround has been striking. Jackson calls it the most successful large-scale change the district has ever led.
Out-of-school suspensions are down 67% to 8 students per 100 and the graduation rate has soared 16.6%, reaching 73.5% last year. Expulsions are down 74% and police notifications are down 39%, two more statistics administrators attribute, at least in part, to the focus on social emotional learning.
Nearly 200 of the district’s 650 schools have earned a designation under the Supportive Schools Certification program. Emerging schools have begun building support for SEL, established schools have shown evidence of this support, and exemplary schools have shown “a strong commitment and robust systems to support social and emotional learning,” according to the district.
Emily Bolton, deputy press secretary of academics for CPS, said the certification process itself can provide a roadmap for school improvement.
“It’s a way to recognize schools, but it also helps provide a very clear framework for schools that are looking to improve their program,” Bolton said.
Chicago has become a national leader in SEL, helped along by the state of Illinois’ work on a social emotional learning curriculum. The state was the first in the nation to pass standards for social emotional learning and CPS capitalized on that work.
Part of the district’s support infrastructure includes an SEL specialist in each of its 13 networks, or geographic clusters of schools. These specialists train principals, counselors, deans and others. They also run and observe behavioral health teams at the school level.
Five years into the shift, Jackson said the focus on SEL has become a standard part of a principal’s job. Just as he or she expects to stay on top of instructional advances, each principal knows to do the same when it comes to SEL.
Still, each school has been given flexibility within set expectations that come from the top of the district hierarchy. Every school in the district was asked to conduct a needs assessment and tailor social emotional supports to what they identified based on school culture, local demographics and neighborhood conditions.
Some schools have identified pre-packaged programs for SEL, added Peace Corners to their classrooms and buildings or turned to mindfulness techniques to better support the social emotional needs of their students. An upcoming training will help school staff members support the particular needs of immigrant and undocumented students and families, considering the rise in traumatic stress faced by these groups in recent months.
Key to the districtwide embrace of SEL has been advertising the connection between social emotional learning and academics, Jackson said.
“Often times, especially in high stakes environments, teachers feel like they can’t teach anything except what will help them be successful on standardized assessments,” Jackson said. She has found many educators find it refreshing to be required to take a “whole child” approach.
And both anecdotal and research-based evidence has shown that equipping students with the social emotional skills they need in life simultaneously prepares them to improve their academic performance. So focusing on one necessarily means helping the other – a win-win for all involved.