Special Report
School Climate & Safety

Striving for a High School Where No One Feels Alone

By Arianna Prothero — April 07, 2020 8 min read
Students play cards at Sunset High School in Dallas, where teachers weave social-emotional lessons into instruction and other activities.
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At the start of her art class at Sunset High School near the heart of this city, Gianna Loscherbo-Starkus hands out a mood meter to each of her students. It’s a sheet of paper with a grid of 16 faces printed on it—happy, sad, angry, calm, lonely, content and so on—and students circle the face that best captures how they are feeling that morning.

On this particular day, several mood meters come back with the worried faces circled.

“Lots of kids are worried right now about getting sick,” Loscherbo-Starkus explained.

It’s mid-March and two days before President Donald Trump will declare a national state of emergency over the coronavirus and a week before all of the state’s K-12 public schools will close on Governor Greg Abbott’s orders.

Taking that moment to check in with students and encourage them to evaluate their emotional state so they can clear their heads for academics is the core of what social-emotional learning is about.

The high school years are a particularly important time for students to develop not only their algebra skills but also their abilities to manage their emotions. That’s because teenagers are dealing with a combustible mix of issues.

In addition to becoming more aware of current events and the world around them, high school students are facing rising rates of depression and anxiety. They are navigating drug and alcohol use among their peers. They may be confronting bullying not just in the hallways at school but also on social-media platforms 24-7. Many are entering into their first, real romantic relationships. And to top it all off, teenagers are also trying to figure out what they are going to do with their lives post-high-school.

“The high school life is replete with experiences that have to be managed well,” said Marc Brackett, a professor at Yale University who studies the science of emotion.

“If we’re not teaching students how to regulate their sleep patterns, how to eat healthy, how to get that physical activity that they need, and if we’re not teaching them how to persevere even in classes where they’re bored, or how to manage their stress, we’re not doing them any good.”

However, a new EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers, principals, and school district leaders nationally found that schools often don’t put the same emphasis on teaching social-emotional skills in the high school years as they do in earlier grades.

Eighty-one percent of educators surveyed by EdWeek said their school placed “some” or “a lot” of focus on social-emotional learning for grades 1-3. But only 66 percent said the same was true for grades 9-12.

In terms of how much focus educators think should be placed on SEL at various grade levels, 95 percent said schools should be focusing some or a lot on SEL in grades 1-3, while 86 percent said the same for the high school grades.

Dig into those numbers a little further, and a chasm opens up over how much educators think SEL should be emphasized in the upper grades. Sixty-seven percent of survey respondents said a lot of focus should be placed on SEL in grades 1-3, while only 47 percent said the same of the high school grades.

‘I Now Feel Included’

Sunset is one high school in the Dallas district making a big investment in social-emotional learning. It’s a school of around 2,000 students, most of them Latino and low-income.

The school is in its first year of rolling out an SEL curriculum to students. It opted not to buy a specific SEL curriculum. Instead, teachers on the school’s SEL committee are devising lessons on topics pitched by their colleagues and students.

That means they’ve done segments built around a range of issues pertinent to Sunset High students, from financial literacy to the detention centers on the Texas-Mexico border, said Christina Rodriguez, a former teacher at Sunset who is now administrative intern there as part of a school leadership program. Rodriguez is leading the adoption and development of SEL at the school.

Student Ginny Mendez looks for the card she created in a hall display at Sunset High School in Dallas, where the teaching of social-emotional learning skills is woven into academics and other school activities.

Other weekly themes have included LGBTQ issues, in which students learned about the AIDS crisis and teachers led discussions about using homophobic language. That was a personal issue for junior Noah Macias, who is gay. He said he has noticed a decline in students’ use of homophobic slurs.

“Before, people were reckless in the things they would say; obviously [that] may not be how they actually feel, they just say it to get a buzz,” he said. “I know, personally, for me, hearing those words hurt a lot, I don’t like to be ostracized. I now feel included. It’s helped me gain confidence in classrooms.”

Physics teacher Jacob Soto Ortiz spearheaded a series of social-emotional lessons on masculinity for all students during November, which is men’s health month.

“I think in Hispanic culture, there’s this thing where men are supposed to be strong, and not show emotions, and that those are mutually exclusive.” he said. “There’s a social stigma to it. You’re a guy! Man up, rub some dirt in it, … and that’s just a lifetime of not being able to release whatever you have inside of you.”

The lessons—15 minutes each day —included materials such as a video to watch or data on suicide rates among men and various ethnic groups, as well as discussion prompts.

One day, the exercise called for students to create motivational messages for men that teachers could post on the bulletin boards outside their classrooms. A selection says: “It takes strength to admit weakness,” “Pink is a boy color,” and “It’s OK that you gay.”

Students Put Their Stamp on SEL

Sunset’s SEL initiatives extend beyond the daily exercises. The school is also trying to give students a greater say on how it is run.

It’s voting day at Sunset, and students are casting ballots for their favorite improvement-project proposals—all of them ideas submitted by fellow students. The school has secured a $30,000 grant to pay for the projects that garner the most student votes.

Laptops and rolls of “I voted” stickers sit on two long tables at one end of the cafeteria. Along the wall, posters promote different projects up for a vote such as taking the 9th graders on a field trip to a university and beautifying an outdoor courtyard at the school.

Student Honestie Sadler, in red, dances with English teacher Helen Long, as Long greets her and other students at the doorway of her classroom at Sunset High School in Dallas.

Student volunteers, including Ginny Mendez, the student-body president, keep an eye on the voting stations as their peers cast ballots on the laptops.

“It’s really refreshing as a student body to get to vote for something that directly affects us,” said Mendez, a senior.

She’s 17 and looking forward to getting to vote in the Dallas Independent school district’s next school board election.

“Because the people who are in charge right now—the trustees—they haven’t been in school for a couple of years—many years, actually,” Mendez said. “They only see test scores, they don’t see our actual experience.”

Ultimately, the students will vote to spend the money on water bottle filling stations, repairs for broken band equipment, modernizing the school’s marquee, and a washer and dryer for students to use at school.

In a high school setting in particular, schools should use social-emotional learning to help drive students toward their academic and personal goals, said Brackett, the Yale professor.

Schools should be deliberate in getting students to think about what their goals are for high school—whether it be around getting certain grades or joining a specific club or team—and what skills they need to acquire to achieve those goals, he said.

“The other piece I think is important for high school is it’s a state of development where students are highly introspective,” Brackett said. “So, a lot of what we do is we teach them to become more aware of their mindsets. What is my mindset around these things? … To be more aware of the strategies they are using to manage emotions and have them be the scientists around those strategies and to evaluate them in terms of their effectiveness.”

High school is a crucial time to develop strong social-emotional skills because students will need them soon after they graduate—whether it’s from high school or college—and enter the workforce, said Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, the Dallas district’s executive director of engagement services, which oversees social-emotional learning.

“Social-awareness, self-management, how we share our own thoughts and opinions and respect those of others—those are critical and those are not the skills that an employer wants to spend time teaching their adult employees,” she said.

The High School Mindset

Sunset High’s focus on social-emotional learning is part of a bigger districtwide effort to infuse the teaching and building of those skills into its schools.

The district uses a phased approach for schools. In the introductory year, the district encourages schools to focus on the adults in the building and help them master the five core elements of social-emotional learning outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decisionmaking, relationship skills, and social awareness.

It’s not until the second year that the district encourages schools to set aside time to explicitly teach SEL to students.

But to really do SEL right, it can’t just be relegated to a specific time of day or week, said Valdespino-Gaytán. SEL should be infused throughout the academic day.

“If we’re teaching safety during lab experiments, and we’re teaching students that it’s important to remember to put our goggles on, … then we make that connection with responsible decisionmaking,” she said. “Another might be social studies, if we’re talking about a historical figure ... and what did we learn about this historical figure and how he managed his emotions” during a controversy.

The SEL lessons appear to be seeding themselves throughout the school, popping up in unexpected places. As she walks through the hallways, Rodriguez, the resident administrator, stops to marvel at a large bulletin board that’s been decorated by the cheer team.

In previous years, the board was more of a showcase of the cheer team, with photos of members doing stunts, said Rodriguez. But this year, the background field is covered in black paper. Posted on it are white pieces of paper on which the cheer team has written messages like: “I don’t understand,” “It’s good enough,” and “I give up.” Beneath each statement is a response on a brightly colored piece of paper—yellow, purple, hot pink—saying things like, “What am I missing?” “Is this really my best work?” and “This may take some time and effort.”

Across the top of the board, in multicolored-paper cutout letters, it says: “Sunset Cheer says change your mindset.”

Click here for more exclusive SEL survey results.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 2020 edition of Education Week as Striving for a High School Where No One Feels Alone

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