Education Funding

Social-Emotional Learning Gets Race to Top Boost

May 03, 2013 6 min read
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Parents in the Seattle area are being trained and paid to reach out to other families and encourage them to get involved in their children’s schooling.

Along the Texas-Mexico border, a nonprofit group is working with children touched by violence and creating peer groups for students with other sorts of struggles. And in Indiana, community health groups and counseling agencies are helping a school district enact a comprehensive strategy to improve student behavior.

Those efforts—and 13 others nationwide—are getting a boost from the federal Race to the Top district competition, for which applicants earned bonus points by pairing with outside groups on initiatives to improve students’ social and emotional well-being and behavior.

The 16 winners had high-scoring proposals to do just that, initiatives that several grant recipients said would be implemented far more slowly or not at all without their share of $383 million in aid.

While the main thrust of the competition was for districts to personalize student learning, applicants got an edge if they could show how they would leverage partner agencies to address students’ social, emotional, or behavioral needs, ultimately improving academic achievement.

The bonus section also factored in whether districts could scale up the ideas to high-needs students beyond those the districts would initially focus on, and set measurable goals for how work with partner organizations would improve academic results for students.

“Our schools truly understand the need to partner and be collaborative and to be open to new ways of providing services to students and families,” said Peter Daniels, the spokesman for the Puget Sound Educational Services District, in Washington state, which won $40 million. Seven of the 39 districts that constitute the agency applied for and won the biggest award.

Puget Sound Program

Schools in the region already had strong partnerships with community groups, said Jessica de Barros, Puget Sound’s Race to the Top project director. In two communities, the service district has employed strategies such as expanding the school day and dual-language instruction, and it created a “family navigators” program, in which families are trained to help others engage more deeply in their children’s education.

With the Race to the Top money, the district will expand a partnership with an area public-housing authority in which families are counseled about the effect on children’s education if they relocate frequently and the merit of moving in the summer. If families must move, counselors help locate housing that keeps children at the same schools.

The 2012 district Race to the Top competition was the first time the U.S. Department of Education used the brand to push education redesign at the local level.

The 16 district winners, named in December from nearly 400 applicants, include three charter school districts, two educational cooperatives, one large urban district—the 340,000-student Miami-Dade County system in Florida—and 10 midsize districts.

The next Race to the Top district competition, possibly later this year, will be smaller: The administration plans to spend about $120 million. But the Education Department said in April that it wants the option of adding another priority so that it could require districts to address the behavioral, social, and emotional needs of students and families as part of their core proposals—not just to get an upper hand over competitors.

A $29.9 million grant has helped the 24,000-student Harmony Public Schools, a network of charters with campuses across Texas, expand existing plans to better address students’ social and emotional needs, said Burak Yilmaz, the project director of the school system’s Race to the Top grant.

Meeting Needs

Before winning the competition, Mr. Yilmaz said, the charter network had conducted a needs analysis of students and educators that found students needed support the schools weren’t always providing.

The schools are working with five organizations to provide character education, counseling and crisis services, support for students with disabilities, lessons on preventing cyberbullying and other bullying, and leadership training.

“To make sure that our students graduate college-ready and life-ready, we were hoping to implement these partnerships at some capacity,” Mr. Yilmaz said. “This gave us the nudge.”

For example, Harmony is partnering with the nonprofit Inroads, a St. Louis-based organization that provides mentoring and internships for high school students. A few Harmony high schools planned to work with Inroads but now all will, Mr. Yilmaz said.

In their applications, many districts say joining forces with community organizations is a necessity because their students have innumerable needs that affect their schooling: Many students in the winning systems come from low-income families or are from immigrant families where English is not the first language.

In the Lindsay Unified district in California, Superintendent Thomas L. Rooney said, many students’ parents work in agriculture-related jobs. The 4,000-student district has a history of pairing with businesses, nonprofits, and others to provide support services for its students.

With $10 million in Race to the Top money, the district will expand one such partnership in particular.

Three years ago, Lindsay Unified collaborated with the Tulare County, Calif.-based Rural Education for Americans Project, or REAP, on a program to reward students with scholarships when they achieve academic milestones.

Students in the district—which doesn’t issue grades but instead gives scores showing mastery of individual subjects and skills within those subjects—earn money from REAP toward college scholarships as they demonstrate that mastery.

One goal for pairing with REAP is to create a college-going culture among students who are often the first in their families contemplating higher education, and to provide financial and mental support as students work toward college. This year’s graduating class, the first to benefit from the program, will collect about $190,000 in scholarships.

Scholarship winners will mentor other Lindsay students while in college, Mr. Rooney said.

“How is Race to the Top going to impact that? As more and more learners attain high levels of proficiency, ... more and more funds are going to be needed for the scholarship program,” Mr. Rooney said.

Many of the schools in the IDEA network of charters in Texas are along the border with Mexico, said Sam Goessling, the managing vice president of development for IDEA—Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement. Across 25 schools in the 13,000-student network, 84 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Some live in homes without clean water and consistent electricity.

The IDEA system is surveying parents, students, and community members to try to understand what factors lead its students to leave the system—one in which if students make it to graduation, they will almost certainly go to college, Mr. Goessling said. Only 57 percent of students who start at an IDEA high school graduate from one.

The survey results will shape the partnerships IDEA can create with its $29.2 million in Race to the Top aid, Mr. Goessling said.

One example: If parents say their children need dental care, a local dentist could be brought to schools, or parents could be given vouchers to get their children dental care, so students “are getting health care that they need, and they’re not worried about their molar but the fractions that they’re learning in 3rd grade,” he said.

The charter system has a partnership with Communities In Schools, an Arlington, Va., nonprofit that provides counselors who can help students through traumatic situations, such as witnessing a shooting, and create peer-support groups for students with similar struggles, such as parents’ divorce.

The district also hopes counselors can develop extracurricular activities in which students can form friendships.

“A lot of our students come from two or three towns and come together at school. These kids are not getting together to hang out on Friday night—sometimes you see your friends at school and that’s it,” Mr. Goessling said.

But friends, he said, can help drive the persistence IDEA schools are striving for. “You want to stay at a school where you have friends.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as Students’ Well-Being A Focus of Race to Top


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