SEL is an essential support to middle school WASC accreditation

March 19, 2018 Staff Writer

The following article was co-written by Edward Colación, principal and Marina Hatfield, college and career readiness coach at Young Oak Kim Academy in Los Angeles USD.

The new educational zeitgeist teaches Common Core Standards with real-life concepts and assesses the whole child’s abilities in rigorous ways that highlight critical thinking, communication and collaboration. Accordingly, social-emotional learning (SEL) has become an essential aspect of guiding students in a successful academic direction.

When stakeholders and visitors observe our school culture, they are impressed by our SEL system, which addresses the long-game of grades 6-12 success, providing safety and personalization. A strong SEL-focused middle school foundation will often lead to students’ preparation, resiliency, and achievement in academic marks, high-stakes assessments, and college and career-readiness after high school.

Similarly, educators benefit from this authentic three-year professional development cycle in which they guide their students through the journey from elementary student to high-school-ready young adult. Through this dynamic process, teachers have a firsthand transformational experience that informs their teaching practice, academically, socially and emotionally.

Student Advisory class – also known as “homeroom” – is the ideal space and time for SEL to be fostered by mentoring teachers. At Young Oak Kim Academy (YOKA), our successful Advisory program, which has evolved over eight years, is structured for optimal effectiveness in SEL.

Students loop with their Advisory teacher for all three years in middle school (sixth, seventh and eighth grade), so that they can develop a lasting connection and comfort level with this guiding teacher-mentor. Building community between teachers and students is essential.

The Advisory class meets four times a week after lunch for an hour. At this mid-day time, students have eaten and have had a “brain break” from their core classes so they can mentally and physically transition into the Advisory-class mode. At this time of day, they are more receptive to life-skills learning.

Much like adults after a meal, we like to relax and discuss what’s on our mind. Advisory provides time and structure for these meaningful conversations and activities to take place. Specifically, Advisory focuses on SEL through personal development lessons, group collaborations, “growth mindset” protocols, and students thinking beyond themselves about their place in the community and global society.

Adolescence is an extreme psychological, physiological and social period of change; coupling this transitional period with SEL is optimal for students’ academic and behavioral preparedness in school. The following list includes essential SEL components that have been utilized school-wide at YOKA, spearheaded through Advisory, and have resulted in achievement as shown by our students’ high attendance at school:

• Second Step Positive Behavior Lessons. Students learn about important topics, such as anti-bullying, empathy and compassion. This program provides the “how to” component for Advisory educators to teach SEL effectively.

• Restorative Justice. RJ provides a structure and protocol to talk about emotions. To become comfortable with RJ, our staff practices RJ circle participation and facilitation during professional development time. Students participate in RJ circles to verbalize their feelings, challenges, aspirations and personal stories. Eventually, these stories become their “personal statements” for college.

• Intramural. Structured playtime for middle school students is beneficial because it fulfills their physical and social needs. For intramurals, students engage in healthy athletic competitions between Advisory classes, tapping their kinesthetic learning modalities. Academic contests, competitions, quiz bowls and community service projects are also promoted and celebrated to make academic scholarship “cool” again.

• Themed Advisory Classes. Students further develop interest in focus areas such as gardening, music, yearbook, student government, “Mouse Squad” technology, and Korean culture and language. Clubs, student leadership opportunities, and future career passions and pathways often spring from these classes.

• Communication Technology. Students develop comfort with technological resources that support learning in all subjects, emphasizing healthy communication and interaction online, thus supporting digital citizenship and responsibility. Google Classroom, Schoology, Edmodo, and additional platforms for guided technology engagement are explicitly taught and utilized in instructional practice.

• Individual Graduation Plans. Students review their district IGPs with their Advisory teachers and a counselor in order to long-term plan for their high school graduation. Students get to understand how their current choices in academics, behavior and attendance affect their goals. Essentially, making this information transparent and accessible to students via an IGP that resembles a college transcript, provides a context for ownership and accountability of their academic progress.

• College and Career Exploration. Advisory provides the time and space for college and career research that motivates students. Students explore websites, such as Career Cruising, CA Career Zone, College Board, Khan Academy, and online learning style quizzes that provide beneficial information for short- and long-term SMART goal setting.  

• Traveling Libraries. These are sets of nonfiction books on high-needs topics provided to Advisory classes to support SEL units of study. Not only do these engaging book collections encourage a culture of readers, but also they become sources of content that inform students’ writing. A strong reading and writing culture is key to success in all areas.

• Award Assemblies. At assemblies, students receive award certificates for “Top Star” academics, “Rising Star” improvements, perfect attendance, and achievements in other notable areas. In addition, weekly raffle prizes reward literacy development (reaching Lexile reading goals) and numeracy development (mastering ALEKS math topics), as well as acts of good citizenship. Incentives such as school spirit shirts, meal gift certificates, and silly prizes really matter and motivate kids to achieve.

• Community Service and Involvement. Students are encouraged to seek out and get involved in GEAR UP mentoring, “Big Sister” Advisory matching, “Pennies for Patients” fundraisers, and academic competitions such as spelling bees, writing contests, and multi-media competitions. Advisory teachers take turns identifying the “Dragon of the Week” student for their exceptional performance in school and service to others.

• Bridge Programs. To get ready for high school and model the college-selection process, students are exposed to high schools through assemblies, field trips, summer programs, website exploration and guest speakers. This helps them make an informed high-school choice connected to their college and career aspirations.

Our Advisory program is highlighted as one of our “best practices” when we have observers visit our campus from other schools, states and countries.

When visited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the committee interviewed a representative group of students, and they overwhelmingly shared that their favorite class was Advisory, followed by mathematics and physical education/intramurals. Moreover, students confidently shared that their Advisory teachers are people they trust and can rely on for additional SEL support on a daily basis.

As one of the first five middle schools in Los Angeles USD to be WASC-accredited, our findings report noted many areas of success, all of which connect back to our SEL focus in Advisory, especially our character development focus and high attendance rate. This success is due to students feeling safe and cared for at school.

Advisory has cultivated safety on many levels, which is key to optimal student learning and vital for parents and guardians. Thus, Advisory becomes the linchpin of SEL, which supports attendance, behavior and academics.

When students have challenges in any of these critical areas, they turn to their Advisory teacher for guidance, resources and next steps. Instead of only having one to two counselors serving the whole school population, we now have 30-plus trained educators providing an additional layer of SEL support and guidance, thus creating a distributive counseling model.

In Advisory, all subject areas are supported along with students’ social, emotional, physical, and overall well-being and development. Personalization and equity are stressed in Advisory to make it a fair and enriching experience for both the students and teachers. Moreover, Advisory imbeds accountability for every child on campus.

This teaching and learning structure builds capacity of content teachers to support students in all subject areas. The opportunity to lead the same cohort of middle school students over three years is an ideal real-life long-term professional development experience for a teacher. It is essentially an integrated three-year PD cycle to observe the metamorphosis of adolescent students from day one in middle school to the final days before high school, supporting and monitoring their growth along the way.

Advisory has become the favored class of many of our students and teachers due to the SEL focus. This class is truly the key to meeting the needs of the whole child. If we want students to earn passing grades and proficient/advanced test scores, then we must provide optimal SEL and address the barriers that may impede their learning, scores, safety and success in school.

Advisory teachers become mentors for students through all types of challenges that may go unnoticed otherwise. Our students need this critical SEL time and space in the school day, and we must honor their personal stories, struggles and questions about life in middle school and beyond.

Readers may be interested in the following LAUSD Office of Communications (2017, April 28) entry, “5 District middle schools earn prestigious WASC accreditation,” accessible at https://goo.gl/HkwbGa.

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