Girl sitting in front of city scape reading a bookThe secondary school principal is directly involved in shaping the overall school culture and climate and the specific dynamics for social learning. For this month’s roundtable discussion, we convened a distinguished group of thought leaders on this issue, including Roger Weissberg, chief knowledge officer of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) who is also a distinguished professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois, Chicago; Marc Engoglia, director of Facing History New Tech High School in Cleveland, OH; and Craig Shapiro, principal at David Crockett High School in Austin, TX. The roundtable, conducted in August, was moderated by Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein.

Levin-Epstein: What do you think is the most important thing that secondary school principals should understand about improving school climate and culture in general and social and emotional learning (SEL), in particular?

Weissberg: From CASEL’s point of view, it’s important for an entire school community to emphasize the importance of children’s social, emotional, and academic development. The strategies that we work on with our collaborating districts—and Austin and Cleveland are two of those—include a systemic approach to social and emotional development that looks to every aspect of the school day and its impact on students growing into knowledgeable, responsible, caring, and contributing citizens. 

Shapiro: I have this personal belief that if you’re not head-ready for class then it doesn’t matter what instruction takes place. We have gotten away from caring about the whole child. Dr. Ken Robinson talks to the issue of not only educating from the neck up and on just one side of the brain, but shaping the whole child. We need to approach education differently, so students are physically and emotionally prepared for school. The chief of staff for the Austin Independent School District, Mel Waxler, and I designed the plan to open a mental health center for Crockett High School. I was kind of surprised that Crockett was the first school to offer these services in the state. 

However, since we were able to take care of the students with Tier 3 needs, guess what? They started to graduate, they started to come to school, they had a different outlook on life, and the overall performance of the school changed. The change in culture on the campus was remarkable.

Engoglia: I have stressed to my teachers since day one that the school culture piece is the most important. Nobody really cares what subject you teach. Ultimately, nobody cares that you’re a math teacher, or a science teacher, or you’re teaching biology, whatever. It’s all about, are you teaching that social, emotional piece? And it might not be a teacher saying, “Now I’m going to teach a social, emotional piece.” 

Shapiro: At Crockett High School, it not only affected the kids but the adults. We do a Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning survey every year, and the teachers are asked 60–70 questions about school climate from their perspective. First question: Do you like working in your environment? Ninety-six percent of the teachers here said, “Overall, my school is a good place to work and learn.” Now, I cannot get them to agree on anything else. However, if we can get 96 percent of the staff coming in and saying, “You know, I enjoy working in this place. I feel valued, I feel emotionally attached, I feel people have the best interests for me,” this approach can have a powerful effect on student performance data. 

Crockett has increased its graduation rates by 30–35 percent for African-American, ESL [English as a second language], special ed, Hispanic, and economically disadvantaged students—and that is not an exaggeration—we’re talking 30 percent increases. Also, attendance has risen 7 percent, the discipline rate has fallen by 74 percent, and the class failure rate has been cut in half. I would love for other principals to see it for themselves, not just look at the numbers, but to see and feel the change in the attitude and how that changes the entire ball game.

Engoglia: When people come to my building, they can’t believe it’s an urban school. And you can tell from the second you walk in the doors that we’re about something different than just teaching kids content. Our kids are proud to be members of our school. 

Weissberg: One strong message is that climate and culture influence child learning, their development, their academic performance, but also children’s social and emotional competence influences climate and culture in the building. 

Shapiro: And I’d like to add teachers. I think it has to be about not just the building of the children, but the building of the people who are leading the children. And that starts with me, and the administration, and the parents as well. Parents even participated in the events looking at social-emotional learning issues. 

Levin-Epstein: What kind of training is provided to the teachers specifically, in terms of social-emotional learning? 

Engoglia: For us at Facing History New Tech, we have a two-pronged approach. We have the New Tech piece, which is the project-based learning (PBL) piece. All of my teachers are required to go through a three- to four-day training with New Tech. They hear words like trust, respect, responsibility—that’s the TRR of our school. We spend a lot of time on TRR every day here at the school. When we work with the staff, just about every time we get together, we do something around that piece.

Shapiro: We did a year with StrengthsFinder by Gallup, and we started to look at ourselves. For example, my top five strengths are strategic, individualization, woo, communication, and activator. Instead of looking at our deficits … we started to have a different attitude. The attitude changed to: What I can do.

Weissberg: We recently conducted a national survey of teachers in collaboration with Civic Enterprises and Hart Research Associates. Also, Education Week surveyed teachers. Both surveys reported similar findings. Teachers recognize that social and emotional learning is important. It leads to better school engagement, better grades, better college and career readiness, and better climate. The teachers believe they should be actively involved from pre-K through high school doing this work, but they say they need the help of their leadership to do this.

We just published the 2015 CASEL Guide on Effective Social and Emotional Programs for Middle and High School. We look at the evidence base for approaches, and Facing History New Tech was one of the outstanding models here with a good evidence base, high-quality design, and excellent support for implementation. The best programs emphasize two key components for professional development: One is ongoing on-site coaching. The second involves peer-learning communities that create opportunities to bring people together to talk about what their successes are and what their challenges are and how they overcome them. 

Shapiro: We were working with the staff about three years in and we added to the slogan “always victorious.” We also say we are a campus that’s fostering a community of learners and leaders. Mutual accountability, mutual respect—among not just the families but the kids, the adults—working toward a common cause all come from implementing SEL. Crockett had a dropout rate of more than 20 percent only seven years ago. Today it is around 4 percent. It’s just a complete turnaround, of not just the kids and this campus, but this community. 

Levin-Epstein: Can you give us an example of an ‘ah-ha’ moment with a kid or a teacher in which you said ‘This is evidence that the program we’ve initiated is working’? 

Engoglia: For us, there have been zero issues around [the idea of accepting a transgender student]. Skyler came to us as a female, Ariana. Severe headaches every day, very introverted, couldn’t get her to do much of anything. She came to us on an IEP [Individualized Education Program]. After being with us for three months, I realized there was no reason she should be on an IEP; there was nothing wrong with Ariana. All the things we were doing here as a school and the culture we were building when Ariana became a sophomore … [she] came to a teacher and said, “I’m transgender,” and went through this whole thing with a teacher, and said, “I want to come out here at school, and I want to do it with all the classes and all the students.” And because we’re a PBL [project-based learning] school, Ariana at the time created a presentation, spoke to everybody in her class of 2016, and was fully accepted. It was a very proud moment for me and our school. 

Shapiro: I have a similar story. I had a student who was elected prom queen who was a gentleman. What happened there was that the kids did not want to make a political statement, they just said “this is who he is, and we’re fine” and overwhelmingly elected him prom queen. He proudly walked on the football field in the middle of Texas. His mom came up to me and said, “I never thought you would allow this to occur,” and she was crying on the sideline. There was no show; the student newspaper covered it as “a matter of fact.” The ADL [Anti-Defamation League] called me up; they wanted for him and I to speak at a conference about courageousness. He got on the phone and said there was nothing courageous about what he did. No one from the press called Crockett; we did not get national attention. The community just went forward without blinking an eye.

But the biggest part of the story was the football team as a whole, lining up giving him hugs very publicly and saying, “We love you.” And I sat back and thought, OK, how many other times in other places does this occur? And to me, that is the sign that things are going very well on the campus. 

Weissberg: CASEL focuses on how teachers and students and families interact with social and emotional skill every day. One powerful finding is that over the four years we’ve been working on this collaborating districts initiative, there’s been turnover of every superintendent and some key central office staff across our eight districts. Also, our districts have had to cope with major budget cuts. Yet the districts that started with us on this journey all continue. Things have been passed along powerfully. Probably the most powerful statement that teachers have said to me about social and emotional learning over the years—and it happens a lot—is “this is what I value, this is what I want to do.”