August 20, 2017

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In Tacoma Public Schools, Support for the “Whole Child” | 2015 SLJ Summit

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Greg Benner at the 2015 SLJ Leadership Summit. Photos © Karen Ducey Photography.

The 2015 SLJ Leadership Summit in Seattle promised to “address dynamic, holistic approaches to supporting the success of kids in school and beyond.”  In his remarks on the Tacoma (WA) Whole Child Initiative (TWCI), Greg Benner delivered the goods.

As executive director of the University of Washington-Tacoma (UW-Tacoma)’s Center for Strong Schools and lead academic partner in TWCI, Benner described a transformative collaboration between Tacoma Public Schools with UW-Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools. The collaboration, launched in 2013, has the stated aim to “bring together a whole child focus with best practices in behavioral intervention, data-based decision making, academic improvement, and sustainability.”

Tacoma is the third largest district in Washington State, with 30,000 students in 53 schools and programs averaging 67 percent free and reduced lunch enrollment. The TWCI engages everyone in the community with a role in social and emotional learning through self-management and self-awareness, social awareness and relationship skills, and ongoing practice of responsible decision-making. Everybody is on board—teachers and parents; aides; bus drivers; administrative, lunch, and playground staff; police; day-care and community center staff—in wrap-around engagement to ensure that kids hear consistent positive messages that support future ready citizens.

Wanting to help every kid be “safe, respectful, responsible, caring, and a good learner,” Benner asserted that the early and sustained focus on social and emotional learning is “the best thing we can give kids for the future.” He added. “If you want to get serious about closing the achievement gap, we first have to address the engagement gap.”

Summit_benner_2Funding for TWCI comes from a healthy variety of sources that mirrors the 10-year initiative’s goals. UW-Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools, along with a variety of local foundations, provide over $350,000 per year to provide coordinated training for school, district, and community-based teams and for research and documentation of the initiative’s impact.

In practice, TWCI strives to have students be greeted by school bus drivers, classroom teachers, community center employees, or police officers who show positive social and emotional problem-solving and coping strategies to let students know that they are seen as capable, valued, and safe. Consistent media, including posters and other reminders in classrooms and throughout the community, provide support for these positive human interactions.

Two years in, the initiative has already documented impressive gains. Tacoma students exposed to the wrap-around social and emotional learning initiative have shown 11 percent gains in academic achievement, 10 percent lower emotional stress levels, nine percent lower conduct problems, and nine percent higher pro-social behaviors. This has in turn given teachers and administrators “a two-hour increase per day spent supporting teachers’ academic instruction in the classroom compared to dealing with discipline problems in the principal’s office,” according to Boze Elementary School principal Aaron Wilkins.

TWCI’s focus on social and emotional “soft skills” gives students a haven from adverse childhood experiences and a pattern of behaviors that build future ready life skills. From practicing routines as simple as a handshake and greeting someone by name, to looking behind the causes of self-defeating classroom behavior or providing family support, TWCI’s focus is on having students arrive at school ready to learn and thrive. Gaining experience and confidence that they can be complex thinkers, quality producers, and self-directed learners helps kids be responsible decision makers, effective communicators, and collaborative teammates who in turn are community contributors and conscientious workers.

Benner noted that considerable attention has been given to ensure that TWCI was not just another well-intentioned, short-lived program dropped into professional development calendars and lost amidst a bewildering number of discreet projects inundating the district. Instead, Benner said that TWCI is envisioned as “one big umbrella” in an integrated and sustained ten-year effort.

In 2013, the first cohort included 13 schools from some of Tacoma’s highest needs neighborhoods. Year two added 14 additional schools, and this year, 15 more have joined. Explicit attention to successful implementation strategies will next put their focus in years four and five on strengthening multi-tiered systems of academic supports, dropout prevention, and positive behavioral supports. Coordinated system and community-wide implementation teams include 64 school teams, 85 neighborhood teams, and scores of family facilitator teams. “This is the secret recipe in Tacoma,” said Benner. “Every team fits within the model.”

Throughout the half hour, Benner kept his presentation down to earth, beginning by noting that he was “a dad, fresh from one my four kids’ soccer games,” and closing with an enthusiastic affirmation that it “takes a village” to support children—and that includes smart, sustained, coordinated, and community-wide attention to social and emotional learning.

Craig Seasholes is a teacher librarian at Sanislo Elementary School in Seattle, Washington, and is both a past and future president of the Washington Library Media Association.

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