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ExpandED's 5-City SEL Initiative Demonstrates Strong Results: A Q&A with Jacques Noisette

By Jennifer Friedlin, Director of Communications

Even before the pandemic and the recent outcry against systemic racism, ExpandED and its partners were thinking about how to apply an equity lens to social-emotional learning. Today, the National SEL Demonstration Initiative, generously supported by a multi-million dollar investment from New York Life, 
is delivering on this promise -- and showing results -- in five cities across the U.S. In this Q&A, Jacques Noisette, ExpandED's Director of Social Emotional Learning, discusses the initiative and the next, much-needed steps.

What is ExpandED’s Social-Emotional Learning Initiative?

In 2016, ExpandED Schools and Every Hour Counts, a national coalition of citywide afterschool intermediaries, came together to help school districts around the country better support students’ holistic needs. With the generous support of New York Life Foundation, the National SEL Demonstration Initiative began in three cities, New York, Omaha, and Dallas, with a focus on the middle school grades. Research studies consistently show that the middle school years are “make or break” in terms of a young person’s likelihood of graduating from high school and ultimately succeeding in college and career. The grant allowed Every Hour Counts and ExpandED to partner with schools and afterschool programs to incorporate social and emotional learning practices to inspire student engagement, success, and positive identity formation during these critical years. We are now in the second phase of the project and have expanded our reach to Providence, Rhode Island, and Madison, Wisconsin.

What will happen in the second phase? 

Since we began, the field has evolved. A few years ago, the K-12 education field was just beginning to acknowledge the need to support young people’s development through a more holistic approach that includes essential social and emotional skills-building so that they would be well-prepared to succeed in college and career. Approaches to social-emotional learning were fragmented and partial, where they existed at all. In all three pilot cities, the New York Life Foundation funding allowed ExpandED to help schools and afterschool programs work together in implementing social-emotional learning across a child’s entire day. 

As we work with our counterparts across the five cities, we will concentrate on three key areas. First, we want to enhance the focus on educational equity by integrating policy and practices that could lead to systemic change. Second, we want to increase opportunities for youth agency and family engagement through locally designed innovative approaches. Lastly, we want to strengthen SEL in the expanded-learning field nationally by growing our learning community and disseminating best practices.

What have been the successes to date?

Through professional development, communities of practice, and coaching, we have built the capacity of more than 300 educators and have worked with community leaders across the five cities to support social-emotional skill development in schools and afterschool programs that have reached over 4,000 middle school students. We have received positive feedback from educators who have implemented the SEL strategies we teach through our trainings, including the use of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER framework. With our partners, we have made great strides in creating a culture of communication, respect, and agency among and between educators and students.

Have you been able to quantify results?

Yes, we have. In New York City, students at schools participating in the initiative achieved significant gains in SEL competencies, reflected by a 20 percentage point increase in their average percentile score on the DESSA-mini, a holistic SEL assessment, from beginning to end of year. In all three cities, schools reported as much as a 45 percent reduction in discipline issues after implementing SEL strategies. And the SEL approaches piloted through the initiative have been adapted by each city’s school districts. In Dallas, the district added trainings developed through this grant to their centralized professional development offerings, a step towards ultimately reaching 150,000 young people with SEL supports. In New York City, ExpandED now provides an array of SEL trainings to community educators each year that builds upon the strategies piloted during the first years of the initiative.

ExpandED is focused on designing and supporting programs that are anti-racist. How does this tie into the SEL work?

Even before the pandemic and the recent outcry against systemic racism, people in our line of work were thinking about how to apply an equity lens to social-emotional learning. When we launched our initiative, the conversation around social-emotional skills development primarily focused on the need to address the academic “achievement gap.” The field approached SEL from a deficit-based perspective, asserting that young people from low-income communities must develop social and emotional skills like “grit” and “resilience,” rather than starting from the asset-based SEL perspective that begins with valuing the strengths children naturally possess. We believe that to successfully support the social-emotional growth of students in high-need schools, we must first equip the adults in their lives with the skills and understanding to help students channel their strengths in a positive way and then to nurture and build on those skills.

By ensuring that SEL is grounded in authentic recognition and respect for adults’ and young people’s identities and cultural backgrounds, our approach to SEL ensures that educators and students alike are valued. This builds cohesion among members of the school community. 

How can virtual afterschool address students’ social and emotional needs?

ExpandED has created a full suite of professional development workshops for the virtual environment. We offer remote-based SEL-focused webinars to all of our partners’ staff. We are also collaborating with Sanford Harmony, developer of a social emotional learning program for Pre-K through 6th grade designed to foster communication, connection, and community, to make their curricula and professional development tools available to our partners. In addition, we just launched an SEL Resource Hub where program directors can pull and add resources, articles, and templates to enhance their SEL instructional practices. We currently have buckets of resources in SEL and Equity, Trauma, Adult Self-Care, SEL Ice Breakers, and Family Engagement. 

Another thing we suggest to program directors is that they let go of the reins and allow students to take more of the lead, even online. During our recent SEL Directors Virtual Convening, Catherine Aponte, Program Director from the 82nd Street Academics afterschool program located at the Renaissance Charter School in Queens, shared how important it is to lift up student voices when designing and implementing programs. Letting them co-plan and co-facilitate generates buy-in. Catherine gave examples of students feeling empowered by leading yoga classes and the value of using of student focused interest surveys to check in on their social needs and desires. These strategies ultimately lead to her maintaining a high attendance rate in a fully remote program design, which is quite rare in this current instructional climate.

What are your goals for the next few years?

We would like to expand and integrating SEL instructional practices across departments.  For some time, SEL has been compartmentalized and seen has something you do, rather I believe it should be who you are and expressed within any instructional activity in which students participate. In an effort to accomplish this, I would like to create SEL indicators in lesson plans, share tools for better SEL integration within literacy and STEM offerings, and open our professional development to partners outside of our grant funded sites.

We would also like to diversify our funding streams to support more SEL work. We are grateful for the generous support and commitment of the New York Life Foundation and would now like to attract other supporters who may be interested in addressing the social emotional needs of our youth and families. This horrific pandemic and the racial violence communities across the nation continue to experience and bear witness to are generating deep trauma in young people and those who work with them. I believe it isin the country’s best interest to support our youth with the therapy they need to navigate through these difficult times. Funders willing to help us ensure that we can continue to support community-based organizations in receiving ongoing professional development in trauma-informed and healing centered approaches to working with youth, as well as resources that can help afterschool programs employ licensed mental health professionals to assist youth and their families affected by trauma would be an ideal step in the right direction. 

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