School trustees were supportive on Tuesday of a committee's proposal to bring a districtwide social-emotional curriculum to Palo Alto Unified, though they probed still-to-be-formed plans for implementation and evaluation.
The district's Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee has recommended the district take a phased approach to what they described Tuesday night as not simply selecting a new curriculum focused on social-emotional skills, but a shift in culture that will require sustained leadership, resources and commitment. While some schools are ready to jump in headfirst — primarily the district's two high schools, committee members said — others will need time to prepare.
Gunn High School, for example, has already prepared a draft "action plan" to pilot new social-emotional curriculum with freshmen and sophomores this fall, Principal Denise Herrmann told the board. She said she plans to merge this work with a plan to bring a teacher-advisory program at Gunn, started this year with the launch of a new cohort program called Titan Connect. Palo Alto High School is also looking at how to integrate further social-emotional learning as part of its existing teacher-advisory program, Herrmann said.
Social-emotional learning is already present at many Palo Alto schools in dedicated programs and individual classrooms, but they lack a cohesive, aligned focus, committee members said. Adopting a districtwide curriculum would mean providing direct instruction on social-emotional learning, or SEL, at all grade levels as well as integrating an overall commitment to the philosophy behind it — "how we do what we do in addition to what we do and when," explained committee member Josh Bloom, a Paly teacher on special assignment (TOSA) focused on social-emotional learning.
"Too often SEL is viewed as simply adopting a curriculum," he said. "In short, the research is crystal clear: If we're going to do SEL effectively in this district, we have to all commit to supporting each other and doing it together, and that means using these standards to re-examine our practice and culture and provide the support and education necessary for us all to grow and learn with our students."
Given the breadth of this approach, board members asked for more specific ways to measure and monitor any new efforts put in place.
"It would be helpful to know what success metrics we are expecting," trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said. "Where are we today and where would we like to be?"
Some board members expressed dismay that the committee was not yet recommending a specific curriculum for the district to adopt — a charge that this group was given but said it was unable to complete given time restraints and the rapidly growing number of programs in this field. (The committee did recommend a "framework" that includes broad guiding principles and learning standards for this work.)
Some trustees also questioned the value of a recommendation to create three new district- and school-level committees to oversee next steps, including vetting and choosing a curriculum. Committee members said they felt a fresh group with more teacher-members would be better suited for that work. The success of their overall recommendations, members said, would depend on a level of communication and coordination that new committees could provide.
"Our charge is basically to make this a really strong commitment of the whole district and integrate it into the business that we're doing so it's sustainable beyond the commitment that are able to maintain — that it survives past our committee," said committee member Miriam Stevenson, an assistant principal at Gunn.
The shift toward social-emotional learning will require a significant financial investment over the next several years, staff said Tuesday. This year, the district estimates planning efforts could cost a total of $23,400. The price of training, curricula, materials and other implementation costs is estimated to start next year at $69,000 and ramp up through the 2019-20 school year to more than $200,000. Some costs can be covered by an Educator Effectiveness grant from the state Department of Education, staff said.
Herrmann told the board that despite any sticker shock — especially for a district in the midst of making serious budget cuts to address an multi-million dollar shortfall — investing in social-emotional learning makes financial sense, and could even result in savings down the road. She cited research that has shown social-emotional learning is directly tied to improved academic achievement and can help close the achievement gap.
Several parents and educators also urged the board to prioritize funding for social-emotional learning.
"If a child's social emotional needs are met, the rest really follows," said parent Kiran Gaind, also a former Bay Area high school teacher. "I think sometimes we get that backwards."
The board will discuss costs associated with the social-emotional proposals as part of a budget study session next Tuesday, March 7, at 8 a.m. Trustees asked staff to provide more specifics around staffing needs, stipends and other costs.
As next steps, Superintendent Max McGee said he hopes the board will approve a budget figure and the charge for a new curriculum committee who can then start that work. Staff will also return with an overall "charter" capturing the social-emotional committee's recommendations for board approval later this spring.
Moving forward, the board's role, said Vice President Ken Dauber, is "to be supportive of the direction and to understand the resources that need to be committed in order to make it work."