While the Palo Alto school district is nationally known for its academic rigor, it is "less clear" that its students are well prepared in another area research has shown is key to future success and well-being: social-emotional learning.
This is according to a district committee charged with researching and recommending a K-12 social-emotional learning curriculum for the school district to adopt. The Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee wrote in its final report, which members will present to the school board on Tuesday night, that there is ample evidence of the need for and benefits of bringing such a curriculum to Palo Alto Unified's 17 schools.
"Effective SEL programs improve academic achievement, help students form deeper connections to schools, and encourage positive student behaviors," the report reads. "Both academic success and success in life require the integration of cognitive, social and emotional skills."
The group quotes a national collaborative to define social-emotional learning, an increasingly popular buzzword in the education world: "Social and emotional learning involves the processes through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply 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."
The committee is not yet recommending a specific curriculum for the district to adopt, but rather the creation of several new committees that could tackle that task with more sufficient time. The group's final report and its recommendations should be seen as not the end product, but "the first stage of a multi-year process" for the district, the report states.
The 23-member group, made up of teachers, staff, administrators, students, parents and community members, has, however recommended a "framework" to use to guide this work. After reviewing existing frameworks across the country, consulting with local experts and other school districts, the committee settled on a statewide approach developed by a group of experts in Washington in October. The framework outlines "guiding principles, standards, and benchmarks" for an effective social-emotional learning curriculum, a report from the Washington group reads.
Their guiding principles are professional learning, school-family-community partnership, cultural responsiveness and competence and inclusion of social-emotional learning across all schools. Standards are broken into two categories — self and social — with goals for students to achieve both self-awareness and social awareness, for example.
The social-emotional learning committee felt this framework "best merged fundamental elements" from two others identified as top contenders for Palo Alto.
This framework should not only be used to implement a specific curriculum, but also to transform culture, the committee wrote in its report.
"Transformative and sustainable SEL must be cultural and systemic," the report reads. "Student progress in SEL requires the development and modeling of caregiver capacity and competency (teachers, staff, and families), which in turn requires the development and modeling of leadership capacity and competency (site & district administration and community leaders). Efficacious SEL is reflected not just in the people but the systems (policies, practices, and culture) that support students, staff, and families."
Currently, social-emotional learning is sprinkled throughout the districts in pockets, the committee found; a new K-12 curriculum would take a more unified, systematic approach.
Examples of existing efforts include a "life skills" program at Duveneck Elementary School, a "social kindness" program at Terman Middle School, Palo Alto High School's teacher-adviser program, a positive psychology class at Gunn High School, anti-bullying efforts throughout the district and mindfulness lessons, among others identified in the report.
The committee has spent the last eight months reviewing research, literature and data; meeting with experts and other schools who have implemented social-emotional curriculum; reviewing potential curricula as well as existing social-emotional programs in the district; and conducting focus groups with principal, teachers, middle schoolers and high schoolers, among other work.
The group is now recommending that the district convene three new committees take the baton for next steps that should be tackled in phases over the next three to five years. A proposed pre-K through 12th grade advisory committee of parents, students, teachers, administrators and community members would meet four times per year to develop a rollout plan and budget, as well as oversee implementation, per the group's recommendation. Teacher-leaders and administrators on two elementary- and secondary-level steering committees would meet once a month to research curricula, develop a rubric for evaluation and ensure daily schedules at their schools provide the time necessary to teach social-emotional learning. Individual sites would also form social-emotional learning teams — teachers, administrators and students — to meet twice a month on community partnerships, professional development, implementation and budget planning.
The committee also suggests that the board develop and adopt a specific policy focused on social-emotional learning, allocate yearly funds to this effort and weave social-emotional learning into all professional development.
While the group's report was initially listed as an action item on the board's agenda, it was later amended to a discussion item.
In other business Tuesday, the school board will also vote on a proposed resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights and the proposed repeal of a resolution challenging the agency; hear an interim financial report; and vote to accept a donation from Stanford University to build a new modular building for a childcare program at Escondido Elementary School, among other items.
The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.