By Alexandria Warrick Adams
On a January afternoon, a 14-year-old student I’ll call David sat across from an admissions officer for a competitive high school here in Baltimore, answering questions about why he wanted to attend and asking the admissions officer what the school was like.
It was a totally normal interaction. Yet it was also totally extraordinary. Just six years ago, those who know David best described him as non-verbal. He was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and was isolated at school. His Mom worried he might need to attend a special needs school.
The atmosphere just beyond the school’s walls didn’t help. In the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood where David lives and studies, 35 percent of people live below the poverty line compared to 15 percent nationally, according to U.S. Census Bureau data from 2016. There are no banks or grocery stores within walking distance. And this community was the epicenter of the 2015 Baltimore protests and uprising following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.
“You don’t often get to be a kid in Sandtown,” says Federico Adams, the principal of William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School, where David goes to school.
What helped David the most, he says, was joining an after-school and summer learning program in the 5th grade. He’s participated every year since. It’s in these places, while discovering photography or origami or new books, that David has learned to open up and trust people besides his Mom and sister. He was recently seen in the library reading the dictionary with the school’s star athlete - an unlikely pair, but one brought together by their love of learning new words, said Adams. David has even developed his leadership skills and helps younger kids with their homework. When school staff tell these stories about David, there’s a touch of wonder in their voices.
“I get to talk to someone who cares,” David says about the college-aged mentors - called Learning Coaches - who work the after-school program. “I get to socialize more with people than during regular school hours.”
Both the after-school and summer programs are run by Elev8 Baltimore, where I work as the director. In nearly a decade of partnering with local schools, we’ve learned what works and doesn’t work when it comes to helping students with their social and emotional learning skills. Among our top lessons:
- Focusing on the prevention of risky behaviors (healthy habits, interpersonal communication, and goal setting) is key, providing youth with the opportunities to learn healthy conflict resolution techniques.
- The middle grades are a pivotal turning point in a young person’s life; it is imperative to provide intentional supports for youth in grades 6- 8.
- Relationships matter--near peer mentors (current or recent college graduates that reflect the population served by the program) have proven to be a highly effective strategy for creating long lasting bonds between youth and the program.
- It’s not true that students are not open to learning new techniques around stress management and building relationships. They just need the right learning environments--environments that include adults that support their development, opportunities to develop their leadership skills, and the opportunity to explore new approaches to stress management (yoga, breathing techniques, and individualized plans of support).
When children learn social and emotional skills, they improve their relationships and become better at making responsible choices. Over time they’re able to set and reach harder and more ambitious goals, leading to academic improvement and success.
In the case of David, he earned admission into that competitive high school. He’ll know almost no one there when he starts this fall. But he’s not worried or nervous about meeting new people or adjusting to a new place. In fact, those worries are far down his list compared to his main concern.
“At first, my number one concern is keeping my binder organized,” he said.
Photo: Display in the hallway of William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School. (Courtesy of Laura Elizabeth Pohl/The Hatcher Group)
Alexandria Warrick Adams is director of Elev8 Baltimore, a Community School Strategy that provides afterschool and summer programs.
The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.