When it comes to education reform, the pendulum always swings. Whether it is a new administration coming in and pushing changes at the federal, state or local level, it is easy for individual schools to find themselves going full speed ahead in new directions every few years.
Suzanne Arnold, administrator for school culture and student support at The Renaissance Charter School in New York City, says administrators would do well to think philosophically about their beliefs relating to teaching and learning, what is good for children, how students’ environments affect them, and how schools can overcome barriers to their ability to access education. Those things, she says, don’t change every few years.
The Renaissance School was established in 1993 as a public school and it converted to a charter school in 2000. A founding premise of the school was that students need to be happy in order to really connect to their learning, making a focus on social-emotional well-being a core priority from the start.
Now, social-emotional learning is getting a lot of attention from districts across the country. The importance of “SEL” and “whole-child education” is being touted in small schools all the way up to the federal government. But Arnold says it’s more than just a trend.
“Jump on this bandwagon because it’s the truth,” Arnold said. “People are emotional and social and they have social-emotional needs. They exist whether you acknowledge them or not. This is what it is to be a human being, and if we’re not acknowledging that and addressing it and helping kids navigate that then we’re not going to get kids that are happy and successful in any arena.”
As a charter, The Renaissance Charter School has more control over its own school schedule than traditional publics. This means it has been able to build morning meetings at the elementary school level and advisories at the middle and high school level into the basic school day, guaranteeing time for focused social-emotional learning.
Yumeris Morel, director of teaching and learning, says students are working with teachers to assess their own emotional states and understand how that might impact their school day. Students use Move This World exercises to build their emotional management skills and build a common vocabulary around emotions and mental health. Morel has begun introducing meditation at the high school level to help students further connect with themselves, internally.
This focus on social-emotional well-being has created a unique school environment, according to Morel.
“We have a lot fewer incidents of students who are not able to be connected because of a behavior issue,” Morel said. “When they’re in the classrooms, you see it in what we’re doing. They’re not disengaged.”
TRCS benefits from being a small school — 567 students in kindergarten through 12th grade — where it’s easy for everyone to know everyone else. It also has a number of partnerships that help provide students with the supports they need.
But Morel said the school also prioritizes SEL because administrators have long considered it to be important. Proactive supports and interventions from specialized staff members address student needs as they arise. A full-time social worker, full-time counselor and part-time counselor consistently align their work with teachers. The crossover between academic and behavioral supports are clear.
Arnold calls investments in social-emotional learning the foundation for creating engaged learners.
“You’re setting up the conditions for engaged learning and community belonging that really helps students achieve success personally, emotionally, socially, economically,” Arnold said. “If you’re not making that investment, you’re sort of playing cleanup around those issues forever after.”