SEL's Results in Cleveland and Austin

A young student at Wade Park Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio, leads a discussion with classmates on good listening, a classroom exercise that is part of a districtwide social-emotional learning plan.

In Cleveland, Ohio, a districtwide social-emotional learning program was created in 2007 in the wake of a school-based tragedy. A student who had been suspended returned to his high school, shot and wounded two teachers and two other students and then killed himself.

Cleveland’s schools serve 100 percent low-income students, most of whom are students of color and 23 percent of whom are identified for special education services. The district implemented its SEL program through its district leadership team (known as “Humanware”) in each of its 105 schools. The initiative was launched with the support of the Cleveland Teachers Union when Eric Gordon, now district superintendent, was chief academic officer.

The program includes the PATHS curriculum in preK-grade 5; the Second Step program in grades 6-8; student support teams; mental health services in schools; bullying prevention and conflict mediation programs; and school-based planning centers, which are places for students to receive counseling as a constructive alternative to in-school suspensions.

Student and family engagement are a key part of the agenda. Measures include mentors for young men of color, partnerships with local community organizations and a range of academic achievement supports. Nearly 400 high school students meet twice a year to review their individual school’s Conditions for Learning data, participate in activities with their peers and provide feedback directly to the CEO about proposed district improvements.

Over the last decade, Cleveland has seen significant improvements in school environments as measured by incident rates and evidence from an annual districtwide survey. Suspension and expulsion rates in the 39,000-student district have dropped, while attendance and graduation rates have climbed. In 2011, only one in two Cleveland students graduated high school. By 2017, the graduation rate had increased to 72 percent.

Austin’s Approach
A second model to watch has taken shape in Austin, Texas. Austin launched its strategic plan for social-emotional learning in 2011 under the leadership of then-superintendent Meria Carstarphen. The work has expanded under Paul Cruz, her successor.

The Whole Child, Every Child initiative frames SEL as a districtwide effort for the district’s 130 schools, not an isolated program. Elementary and middle school students receive explicit skills instruction through the Second Step program. High schools use School-Connect as an instructional resource. Teachers integrate SEL into instruction with help from 12 coaches deployed throughout the system and master teachers who develop and support exemplar lessons in the content areas. As part of this integrated effort, the athletics department is implementing a character education program.

As this work has rolled out across the 83,500-student district, studies have found that SEL implementation has been associated with improved attendance, reduced levels of chronic absenteeism, decreases in suspensions and expulsions, and improved graduation rates. In addition, as students have gained SEL competencies, their performance has improved on state reading and math tests.