CHICAGO — The students at Marcus Garvey Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side know the steps to destress in class: Bolt to a classroom Peace Center. Grab the calm-down bottle, a glitter and water mixture. Shake it hard, take deep breaths and watch the glitter swirl.

“When you sit by yourself for a little bit, you usually calm down so you don’t think about it as much,” said Jake, a fifth-grader. “Then, you calm down all the way.”

Minneapolis educators have their eyes on Windy City counterparts like Garvey that have rolled out a slew of techniques embracing the trend of “social-emotional learning” in schools. Research shows that kids schooled in reading as well as responsibility and equations along with empathy do better in class and get into less trouble. Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff has championed the approach since taking office in July.

“We have the same focus on our students: wanting to address their achievement, most definitely with their academics, but then with their well-being as well, and developing skills they need to be successful in life,” Graff said.

A delegation of Minneapolis officials visited Chicago Public Schools last week to see how students’ emotional health has become a key facet in the nation’s third-largest school district. They came home enthusiastic about rolling out their own plans in coming months.

All around Garvey is evidence of the school’s passion for social-emotional learning. Students scribble their emotions onto sticky notes on a feelings wall. They know when to use their deep breathing techniques — if they’re wound up or feel their tempers rising. A pre-K student broke into a yoga pose during circle time on a recent morning.

“If you’re in school and you like where you are, you’re going to learn,” said Sepia Adams, a fifth-grade teacher.

Why Chicago?

Chicago’s more than 600 schools stretch north along Lake Michigan and to southern and western neighborhoods, where gun violence runs rampant.

The school district is about 11 times the size of Minneapolis’, and its students are overwhelmingly low-income students of color. It’s a financially strapped district with a $129 million deficit in a $5.41 billion budget.

Illinois was the first state to implement standards for social-emotional learning. Chicago officials tout their commitment to teaching the skills with an assist from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a group based in Chicago that’s advising districts like Minneapolis.

Since Chicago began concentrating on social-emotional learning in 2012, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions dropped 67 percent and 74 percent respectively last school year, the district’s schools report. The work includes restorative justice and peer juries to address behavior issues, said district Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson.

“There’s been a community that’s been created as a result of this,” Jackson said.

Lessons learned

The Minneapolis Foundation sponsored the Chicago visit that included school, business and nonprofit leaders.

“I was exceptionally impressed that we could go into a variety of schools in different parts of the city and see examples of children acting more like adults than the grown-ups do,” said R.T. Rybak, president and CEO of the foundation.

Graff cautioned that Minneapolis isn’t trying to replicate Chicago. Signs of good implementation would include social-emotional skills mixed in with schoolwork and strong school climate, he said.

Working emotional skills into learning is already happening in Minneapolis schools like North High School, Lucy Craft Laney Community School and Richard R. Green Central Park Community School, said Board Chair Rebecca Gagnon. But what social-emotional learning is or how to use it is not widely grasped.

“There’s not a clear understanding districtwide,” district research and evaluation chief Eric Moore said at a recent school board meeting.

The district is expecting feedback about its current practices from CASEL, Graff said. From there, school leaders will decide how to roll out future strategies.

This fall, when the district adopts a new literacy curriculum, is an ideal time to mesh social-emotional skills with academic ones, Minneapolis social-emotional learning team coordinator Julie Young-Burns said at a recent board meeting.

School board Member Jenny Arneson came back from Chicago impressed by the explicit commitment to social-emotional learning in the vast district, and pointed to evidence of school commitment that included posters and words on walls.

“I believe Minneapolis is headed that way,” she said.

Two case studies

The Minneapolis group visited schools across the district to see the different ways social-emotional learning plays out. While all schools must meet standards for school climate, they have flexibility in the programs they use.

“It’s an individualized approach for every student and every school,” Jackson said.

In a biology class at Lake View High School on Chicago’s North Side, students gathered in small groups to read and learn about cancer. These opportunities give students “a larger community of learners who all have their own challenges to understanding reading,” said Assistant Principal Toney Vast-Binder.

“That makes it a safe place,” he said.

At Garvey, Adams’ classroom is a feel-good hub. After a bullying incident at recess, she had each student write down a compliment for all the others and posted them in class. They included affirmations like, “you are good at math,” “you are beautiful and a fast learner!” and “you are a superstar.”

“It’s just empowering for them to see,” Adams said.


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