Creating Safe and Supportive Learning Environments
Dr. Christina Pate in Conversation with State and District Leaders
Danny Torres: Hello everyone. Welcome to the first session of our online conversation series, Leading Voices. From now and through 2022, WestEd will be spotlighting scholarly and practitioner perspectives on a wide range of pressing education issues. Today’s topic, Creating Safe and Supportive Learning Environments. Dr. Christina Pate in conversation with state and district leaders. Thank you all very much for joining us to speak about this very important topic. My name is Danny Torres. I serve as WestEd Senior Manager of Publications and Dissemination. I’ll be your host today. Now, before we move into today’s conversation, I’d like to take a brief moment to introduce WestEd.
WestEd is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan research, development, and service agency. At WestEd, we believe that learning changes lives. Every day we partner with schools and communities across the country to improve outcomes for youth and adults of all ages. Today’s conversation focuses on one really important facet of the work that we do at WestEd, and I encourage you to visit us at WestEd.org to learn more. Now I’d like to introduce Dr. Christina Pate, Director of Safe and Supportive Learning Environments Services at WestEd. Dr. Pate will be moderating the session today. Dr. Pate, take it away.
Christina Pate: All right, thanks, Danny. We are delighted to be here with you all today. As Danny said, my name is Christina Pate. My pronouns are she, her. Currently I lead our Safe and Supportive Learning Environments body of work. I also serve as the Deputy Director of the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety. Generally, though, I support WestEd in developing equity centered work that fosters adult wellbeing, cultivates the voice and agency and co-design of our stakeholders, and promotes healthy development and resilience. With about 20 years of experience, I support clients at every level of the system, including local and state and federal folks in expanding their leadership and collaboration capacity to really shift mindsets, facilitate personal and systemic transformation, and to build infrastructure and coordinate systems across sectors.
I’m joined here today with my colleague, Jenny Betz. Jenny is a Senior Program Associate with WestEd’s Resilient and Healthy Schools and Communities team, providing coaching, training, and technical assistance to support client efforts to assess and improve school climate and wellness with an emphasis on equity, trauma-informed practice, SEL, stakeholder engagement, youth leadership, bias based bullying, LGBTQ students, data use and sustainability. With more than 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, Jenny has worked with hundreds of SEAs, LEAs, government agencies, and more, focusing on creating and sustaining safe, inclusive, equitable learning environments for all students.
And the real reason we’re here today, we’re also joined by two leading voices in the field who will be sharing a bit about their work at the district and state levels. So, first we’ll hear from Dr. Rose Prejean-Harris, who is the Director of Social Emotional Learning at Atlanta Public Schools. A Louisiana native, she began her teaching career as a middle and high school science teacher in New Orleans, Dallas, and Atlanta before transitioning to a high school counselor and then assistant principal in DeKalb County Schools. She later became the principal of Gainesville Middle School in Gainesville, Georgia. She received her B.S. in Science Education from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, an M.Ed. in School Counseling from the University of West Georgia, and her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from Mercer University.
And then we’re gonna hear from Regina, or Gina, Garcia Timms who serves as a school improvement specialist and program co-manager for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments at the New Mexico Public Education Department, Priority Schools Bureau. And a native to New Mexico, she spent 12 years as a developmental specialist and family service coordinator providing educational and therapeutic services to children with special needs from ages birth to three, and then she spent eight years as a developmental preschool special education teacher in the public school sector at the New Mexico School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Gina became a training and development consultant at the University of New Mexico’s Center for Development and Disability. She provided training and technical support for early intervention providers across the state. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communicative Disorders from the University of New Mexico and her Master of Arts in Special Education with an emphasis on visual impairments and blindness from New Mexico State University.
So, that is a bit about our panel today. So we’re gonna get moving. So, are you tired of all of the shiny objects out there? Those programs, the curricula, the initiatives, all of those things that sort of come and go every single year, and are you confused and overwhelmed by the myriad of frameworks that are out there? The approaches, the strategies that seem to have a lot of similarities or overlap. If so, you’re not alone. So, we’re gonna talk a bit today about what are the essentials of Safe and Supportive Learning Environments and really think about how do we support education stakeholders in identifying, understanding, and really practicing the essential everyday practices and systems and mindsets that create and sustain safe and supportive learning environments regardless of the program or initiative that you’re implementing this year.
You’ll hear the research behind Safe and Supportive Learning Environments. You’ll hear what the essential aspects are today and the perspectives from district and state leaders who are implementing scaling and really sustaining this work. All right, so our flow for today is, as I said, we’re going to start off with a brief overview, we’ll move into our panel discussion, and then we will have some time for Q and A at the end.
So let’s dig in. All right, you might wonder what makes up a safe and supportive learning environment, and you’re going to hear us refer to this as SSLE quite a bit today for short, but many definitions and descriptions really exist out there, and we’ve developed one that’s backed by science, it’s comprehensive, it’s integrative, and it really draws from a number of theories and approaches.
But one thing that’s important to note is that while SSLE is grounded in research, it’s really critical for us to take that notion and make it relevant and meaningful for a particular school, district, or state context. But generally speaking, the school environment really sets the stage for the external factors that affect not just our students but also our staff. And a safe and supportive school environment is really defined as having appropriate facilities, as having well managed classrooms, available school-based health supports, and a clear, fair discipline policy.
So, these are really the hallmarks of what the academic, disciplinary, and physical environments of schools with a “positive” school climate as measured by those leading school climate surveys. So, we describe safe and supportive learning environment as really intentionally involving staff, students, families, and school communities who work together as partners to co-develop those conditions that are necessary for all people to develop, succeed, and thrive. So collectively, we gather and use information to inform our implementation of best practices, those that are both evidence-based and culturally responsive, and then we establish those systems to really enrich the quality of the learning environment to support the whole person, the whole school, and the whole community.
Okay, so we know from research that when school environments are supportive, they really foster participation in education and health, and they offer people protection from those things that actually threaten our teaching, our learning, and our wellbeing. So, a lot of research has been done in this area and here’s what we know about what’s linked to safe, healthy, and supportive learning environments, which includes highly qualified teachers with high expectations, and that leads to higher attendance rates, higher graduation rates, higher test scores, academic performance and academic achievement, so all three of those educational outcomes.
Higher levels of engagement, relational and restorative practices that are clear, fair, and consistently enforced versus those exclusionary or punitive discipline practices, and those types of practices are actually linked to higher student attendance rates, higher levels of engagement, and more positive teacher-student relationships. And then here’s what we know about what’s linked to unsafe, unhealthy, and unsupportive learning environments. So, we see poor test scores, lower graduation rates, lower attendance rates, student disengagement, low levels of teacher satisfaction, high rates of teacher turnover, low academic expectations, messy or unsafe physical spaces, and those exclusionary and punitive discipline policies. And those types of policies are linked to high school dropout.
So, just real quick, what are some of your initial reactions? Go ahead and drop into the chat. Are these things that you already knew? Was this intuitive to you? I’m really curious, was this the message that you were given in your educator preparation programs, where you actually prepared for this part of education? But go ahead and type your thoughts into the chat. We’ll have some people monitoring that, but for the sake of time, we wanna get to our panelists and we’re gonna keep moving. All right, so this is where we really get into the essentials. There are, like I said earlier, a number of philosophies and approaches that are really required to create those conditions necessary for equitable teaching and learning. And while a lot of these overlap, each one also has their own distinct characteristics and processes.
So, you’ve probably heard of a lot of these on the screen right now, and you might often wonder what is the difference, aren’t some of them the same, there are too many things, oh my goodness, right? So just as I said at the beginning, there are so many things that our educators on the ground are juggling. And what we hear over and over is that at the end of the day, educators on the ground really just wanna know what to do and how to show up. Most of them don’t care what things are called, they just wanna do what’s best for young people and for each other.
So, at WestEd, what we have done is really pulled out the essential aspects of these and integrated them into one holistic approach that we call Safe and Supportive Learning Environments or SSLE Essentials. They include but certainly aren’t limited to social and emotional learning, behavior supports, school climate and culture, positive youth development, trauma informed practices, restorative practices, culturally responsive teaching, stakeholder voice and leadership, adaptive leadership, right, a lot of things.
What’s really important to note is that just because we pulled out some of the essentials, it doesn’t mean that someone’s done a thing. For example, if you go through our essential series, you haven’t checked the box on your implicit bias training. You haven’t implemented restorative practices; you haven’t been trained in PPIS. Just so we’re clear, it’s really about identifying and understanding and practicing those essential everyday mindsets and practices and systems that create and sustain a safe and supportive learning environment, again, regardless of the program or initiative that you’re implementing.
And Gina is gonna be speaking to this a little bit later, but here’s a great example of how the essentials can connect to any other important frameworks. It’s not another thing that we’re piling on top, rather it’s integrated. The SEL framework that’s developed by the New Mexico Public Education Department directly connects with the essential. We basically take the what of the framework, and we offer the why and the how when it comes to these practices and mindsets, so really providing the nourishment for the soil there. And so again, Gina is gonna talk a little bit more about that later.
All right, so to quickly wrap us up on this overview, the way that we at WestEd contextualize safe and supportive learning environments is by using an ecological framework. We really focus on the personal, interpersonal, collective, instructional and systemic aspects. You’ll notice that the personal and the interpersonal really sit inside or they exist within that larger system context. So as participants go through the essentials, they notice that they’re looking at them through a personal, interpersonal, and systemic lens. And that’s because in order for us to get the changes and the outcomes that we really want for safe and supportive learning environments, we not only have to look through each of these lenses, but we also have to understand how they interact and inform one another.
So, the personal really refers to either you as an individual or your students or their caregivers or their colleagues as individuals. So, what’s going on inside people as individuals. And then the interpersonal refers to the interactions with others, whether it’s your interactions with others or other people’s interactions with each other. The focus here is really on relationships and community and the collective experience. And then systems refers to the infrastructure, the processes, the organizational aspects and the policies that really create the conditions for the ways that we think and act.
So, as I mentioned, we have to look at all of these lenses to get the outcomes that we want in creating those safe and supportive learning environments. And because these are not siloed, it means that they impact one another. So for example, personal shifts, those individual shifts, can ultimately impact larger system shifts. Okay, the last thing we’d like for you to hold in your minds as we move forward today is the difference between technical and adaptive work. When we as humans identify a challenge, or we’re gonna change something, we often default to what Ron Heifetz calls technical solutions.
This means that we often rush to find the quickest and the easiest solution, try to apply those technical straightforward solutions to what usually are complex adaptive challenges. So, the technical work is all that stuff on the surface level. Plans, programs, policies, practices, all the shiny objects, right? But when we’re working to create and sustain safe and supportive learning environments, there has to be a centering of adaptive work. This is the stuff below the water, the mindsets, the values, the beliefs, the biases, the attitudes, the relationships, right?
Oftentimes if we don’t center adaptive work and adaptive shifts, it doesn’t matter what policies, programs. or other technical solutions we apply because the underlying mindsets and values and beliefs may not be aligned. All right, so that’s it for my piece of the overview. What we’re gonna do now is move into district and state overviews just to give you a little bit of context of their work, and we’re gonna move into a panel discussion. We’re gonna start with Dr. Prejean-Harris, and I will turn it over to you.
Rose Prejean-Harris: Thank you, Christina and good afternoon, everyone. I hope you guys are having a sunshiny day, even if it’s raining in your neck of the woods. So, in Atlanta public schools, one of our current strategic priorities centers on building a culture of student support. As part of that work, we know that providing services that address the social, emotional, mental, and behavioral well-being of all of our students is essential to creating safe and supportive learning environments. We began this cultural transformation of our district in 2015, when we adopted CASEL’s SEL framework.
And with CASEL’S support, put processes in place to provide both our adults and our students with intentional opportunities to build social and emotional skills. At that time and now, our major focus remains on building strong relationships. Some of the programming that we have in place includes explicit SEL instruction, and our standard of practice is 60 minutes, a minimum of 60 minutes per week for every student where we’re teaching those skills explicitly, either through our curriculum or our own community gatherings that my staff really creates on their own.
The next piece is an intentional focus on academic integration of SEL throughout the day where we work collaboratively with our content coordinators, our instructional design and technology design, and our teachers to ensure that those tenants of SEL are within those lessons. Our adult SEL programming and wellness, because we know that the adults are one of the most important pieces of strategic implementation, we know that they have to be well and that they have to have the capacity to teach those specific skills to kids. So they have to have them on their own also.
Restorative practices is another programming piece that we have in place here in the district. And in the spring of 2020, our school board actually implemented and passed a restorative practices policy. We also do positive behavior supports and interventions, PBIS, and we have care teams in each of our schools. At the start of our new strategic plan, we embark to really deepen and align the work of our whole child framework, which incorporates SEL, positive behavior supports in wellness.
The events of the pandemic really increase the urgency of this work and we focused on six priorities. Planning and facilitating advisory meetings and explicit SEL instruction that builds connections, strengthen SEL skills, and support wellbeing. Modeling and embedding SEL competencies into all aspects of instruction. Developing a common understanding of trauma and utilizing trauma informed practices to help support students. Identifying warning signs of physical, emotional, and mental unwellness, and connecting students with the appropriate supports and services. Designing a consistent and coordinated approach to provisions of services to meet the needs of our students. And implementing restorative practices and progressive discipline practices with fidelity.
In creating the framework, the whole child framework, we had an understanding of what was happening in our schools and communities but needed a very specific way to respond proactively to the needs of our students. So this year, for the first time, we decided to administer a universal screener to identify students in grades pre-K through 12 who may need support. We also created a response protocol that mobilizes several different layers of coordinated responses based on the data gathered from that universal screener. And I just would like you guys to know that our end date for our first administration was actually this past Friday.
And so those coordinated teams are now responding to the data that was taken in from those universal screeners. I want to emphasize that having a strong Tier One support really optimizes the creation of Safe and Supportive Learning Environments. And we know that we have to take care of our kids. We have to make sure that they are well, and we have to make sure that our staff members are well if we want learning to occur in classrooms. And so, although at this point I focus on what we have in place for students, it is equally important to make sure that our staff has the capacity to give students what they need.
So, we’ve placed a strong level of importance on supporting staff through our adult SEL and wellness programming. We have a series of professional learning opportunities that aim to connect the work of various departments, including SEL, student services, equity, staff wellbeing, and staff engagement departments. These departments work together to support our staff in understanding the importance of mindsets, the brain work behind trauma, the importance of taking care of themselves, and the necessity of acknowledging what they bring into the learning environments.
This work, the work of helping adults to build understanding and capacity to support students is a critical component of moving the work of safe and supportive learning environments forward. As an example, I would like to highlight one of our professional learning series that we developed with our thought partners at WestEd. This series is called Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, and it’s aimed to build the capacity of district and school-based staff to implement and support SSLE through effective Tier One practices.
In module one, our module one is really an intro to the work. It overviews and connects the SSLE work to the tenants of our whole child framework. As Christina said earlier, it’s not different work, it integrates together. It really provides our participants with an overview of the key components of the series, which include SEL, cultural responsiveness, and trauma informed practices. It also sets the stage for future learning and allows the participants to do some pre-work before diving deeper into the series. The second part of that module is really about recognizing healthy relationships.
And the second module focuses on building teachers, self-awareness, and self-management, and how that influences the quality of their adult and student relationships. We know that relationships are critical components in SEL and a key factor in one’s professional satisfaction, one’s worldview, and one’s sense of self. In module three, we focus on elevating conditions for success through cultural responsiveness, and that really explores the conditions for success in order to strengthen cultural responsiveness in the school and in the classroom environments. Module four examines how a healthy and safe and supportive learning environment enables students and adults to learn in powerful ways.
When students are provided opportunities to learn in environments that are free of threats and where each student believes that they are a valued member of the classroom community, this promotes innovation, student inquiry, and academic risk taking. And we call that module Creating Safe Spaces to Learn and Connect. Our fifth module is really about building student agency, and it focuses on how and why educators can support their students to develop agency through voice, choice, dialogue, and action.
All of this work is really an opportunity to open dialogue and to co-create our expectations for creating safe and supportive learning environments where both students and staff can thrive. So, I call this moment a moment of transformation. As we lead with equity at the forefront, we understand that we have to deepen the work by connecting identity, agency, and belonging in everything that we do. That includes from choosing our curriculum to hiring practices and funding allocations.
So, another first this year in Atlanta public schools is really the creation of our Center for Equity and Social Justice. And that Center aims to positively impact the lives of our learners, not by accident, but by design. And as part of that design, it’s tackling the many systems that are currently in place that negatively impact our learning community. One of the pieces that have come through our equity department is our six equity teacher dispositions. These dispositions are really our beliefs around what should happen with the adults in our classrooms.
And as you can see, when you think about our whole child framework, about the SEL components of our whole child framework, the positive behavior supports of our framework, and the wellness components of our framework, these six teacher equity dispositions really lean into those pieces of our whole child framework, and they also lean into creating a safe and supportive learning environment. The first disposition is really about teachers and adults and our staff members reflecting on personal assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors. What does that look like, right? Who are you and what are you bringing into the classroom?
The second disposition is really to act with cultural competence and responsiveness in interactions, decision-making, and practices. Do you know your kids? Who are they? What do they bring into the classroom? And how can I respond instructionally to the needs of those students? The third is to confront and alter institutional biases of student marginalized groups, deficit based schooling, and low expectations associated with minoritized populations. Our fourth is to cultivate self-love and knowledge and develop appreciation and respect for others.
Our fifth disposition is to teach about issues of social injustice, social movements, and social change. And our sixth disposition is to empower students to exercise their voice in the promotion of social change. As you can see and as you can hear, we start with the personal, right? Move to the interaction between others, and then tackle the systemic practices within our system. So, I would like to close with this, and we know that no system is perfect, but we strive to have a high-quality number of inputs so that our outputs are clear and that they are aligned with our beliefs and goals for our student success. Thank you.
Christina Pate: Wonderful, thank you so much Dr. Prejean-Harris. What a nice illustration of both that ecological model of the Personal, Collective, and Systemic and that adaptive work that’s really required, so those equity dispositions are really that adaptive work that we were speaking to. Now we’re gonna hear an overview of the state perspective from Gina Garcia Timms at New Mexico Public Education Department.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: Good morning and good afternoon for those of you on the west coast. New Mexico is one of the richest and most culturally diverse places in the world. Our state has the highest percentage of Native American and Hispanics than any other state, and with that comes traditions and beliefs that we must approach with the utmost respect. Sadly, this is our current reality. New Mexico is ranked 49th in the United States regarding economic wellbeing, with 26% of our children living in poverty. Thirty-two percent of new Mexico’s children between the ages of 10 and 17 years old are considered obese. New Mexico ranks 48th in the nation regarding family and community resources.
We know that children who live in nurturing families and supportive communities have stronger personal connections and higher academic achievement. However, parents and caregivers struggling with financial hardship have fewer resources and supports available to foster their children’s development and are more prone to face severe stress and depression which can interfere with effective parenting and effective learning. Low income families, students with disabilities, English language learners and Native American students collectively make up approximately 80% of the New Mexico student population.
There is so much work to be done in our state to ensure our children feel safe and supportive. At the New Mexico Public Education Department, we believe in the strength of our diverse communities. Oh, sorry, of our diverse communities, and the equity for all of our children with all of our student groups. Our focus values the importance of all cultures, language and learning differences. The Priority Schools Bureau that I work for at the New Mexico Public Education Department works in partnership with New Mexico schools and districts to build capacity of educational leaders resulting in improved outcomes for children.
It is through these partnerships that we’re able to build capacity through our districts in the training of the essentials as we move forward, the implementation of key essentials in creating safe and supportive learning environments for our children. Okay, Jenny. Our belief at the Priority Schools Bureau is if we strengthen leaders’ competencies to transform districts and schools, they will have the capacity to take bold and purposeful action. If leaders take bold and purposeful action, they will establish the conditions for effective teaching and learning. If we establish the conditions for effective teaching and learning, teachers will have the opportunity to improve their instructional practice.
And if teachers improve instructional practice, then student learning will increase. We will establish these conditions by giving our school leaders and teachers the tools through the work of the essentials to help cultivate optimal conditions, change the school culture, and shift mindsets to one of community and belonging. In doing this, we will create a space where students will feel safe and confident to take risks through their journey of learning. This journey, the work of the SSLE, began two years ago through a one-year leadership program called LAUNCH.
LAUNCH was created to build the capacity of early career school leaders to include principals and assistant principals. Our bureau is always thinking of new and innovative ways in our approach to building the capacity of school leaders, and what a better time to implement this crucial work than during a time of a global pandemic and the need for being more ethically responsible to our most precious constituents, our children. In the past, this one-year program focused on leadership, observation and feedback, and the use of data to improve outcomes for children.
But all of this will not work unless our children feel safe and secure within the environment in which they’re learning. The importance of building relationships is crucial to the development of children, and as we know, if children do not feel safe, then learning will not happen. We now stood at a crossroads. This path needed to change for both the students and staff. This pivot linked us to a partnership with WestEd to focus on creating safe and supportive learning environments for all children. During the 2020-2021 school year, school leaders were brought together virtually through a community of practice led by our partners at WestEd.
It was through these bite-sized pieces of content that allowed them to have courageous conversations with staff in their schools. In addition to their participation in the communities of practice, they were also paired with a performance coach to support them in being a thought partner in how to shift mind shifts to their staff. Okay, Jenny. Upon completion of the 2020-2021 school year, we knew the work needed to continue, but this time we wanted to ensure that the work would be sustainable. This is what we learned. We learned that our LAUNCH participants saw value in the work of creating safe and supportive learning environments for their staff and students.
We learned that our valued stakeholders wanted more, they needed a path in which to make this work sustainable. So we created one. But we also knew that the work was being done on a bigger scale, and it was crucial that we align the work of SSLE to the current work being done by our state. As Christina mentioned earlier, the alignment to the existing systems is important. New Mexico’s approach to SSLE is twofold. We are on a two-track agenda to include the work that I’m currently leading through the SSLE essentials work and through our Safe and Healthy Schools Bureau who has ramped up support across the state.
We felt it was crucial to ensure that there was alignment between the ten essentials, the multi-layered system of support, and the social emotional learning framework through our Safe and Healthy Schools Bureau. With so many things that our school leaders have to implement, we didn’t want to overwhelm them by giving them yet another thing to do. We also wanted to make sure the SSLE essentials could be embedded into their current systems and curriculums. Currently through this pilot, we have participation from nine districts and two RECs. In choosing our pilots, we wanted to ensure there was representation from the diversity of our state.
Through the Priority Schools Bureau, we have created strong relationships, and because of those relationships, the belief that we can do better for the children of our state, we were able to invite participants from districts both large and small. We also made sure that prior to the rollout of the Safe and Supportive Learning Environments Essentials, that they were reviewed by key stakeholders who were represented both Native American and Hispanic areas of our state. Their feedback was crucial to ensure equity and alignment. Participating districts selected anywhere from four to eight facilitators, depending on the size of the district.
Those facilitators are currently learning the essentials. Due to the pandemic, we’ve had to pivot our rollout. Currently our facilitators meet one time per month virtually to learn an essential. They also were supported through our PSBNMSSLE webpage, where they can access materials and supports. These essentials were designed to be small and essential pieces of a larger body of work around trauma informed practices, restorative practices, and social emotional learning centered in equity. These essentials are designed for both staff and administrators.
For administrators, we ask that they think about their mindset, practices, policies, and systems with the focus being on adult SEL, trauma informed, healing centered, and restorative education practices and policies, and co-created equitable systems. For educators, we ask them to think about their mindsets and their practices to include adult SEL, trauma informed, healing centered, and restorative education. And for students, the brief practices and strategies that educators can embed into the curriculum or everyday practices in classrooms. Ultimately, the students are the end users of these key essentials.
This work is not designed to stand alone but to be embedded into existing programs and efforts. It is our hope that increasing awareness on how trauma impacts the brain and how it impacts learning and how a shift in mindset through implementation of strategies and the reflection of our practice will impact staff and students to create a culture of care, to feel safe and supported. Thank you.
Christina Pate: All right, thank you so much Gina. I think this, and both of you all, but really this speaks to how you all contextualize the safe and supportive learning environments work to fit the unique needs of your state and for your different districts and for the different stakeholders, whether it was for staff or administrators and really being able to be flexible and adaptable there. And I think also New Mexico has done a nice job of creating sustainable systems and structures to actually implement the work, and we’re gonna talk a little bit more about that here in a moment.
So, let’s dig into some discussion. So, we’re gonna start off with our first theme around equity and cultural responsiveness. Perhaps we can hear from Dr. Prejean-Harris first to give Gina her voice a little bit of a break. How does Atlanta Public Schools Center Equity in this work? And what does that look like for you all, and how do you really approach this?
Rose Prejean-Harris: So, I think the best way to say it is that we are trying to make sure that all of our work is aligned and that we’re looking at all of our work through that equity lens. And so, our new center for equity and social justice, they serve as our thought partners to make sure that in everything that we do, programming, purchasing, hiring, that we really are keeping a focus on equity and that we know that we have to serve our most vulnerable students, right? So, if you look at the statistics about kids living in poverty in Atlanta, we probably have the highest disproportion of kids. Like we in Atlanta Public Schools itself, we have a large number of kids who live in poverty, and then we have this skewed small group of kids who are very affluent and very economically advantaged.
And so that creates differences in our system in terms of approaching how we serve kids who really need the extra push, the extra help, in building resources for them. And so, we really had to look at our student success funding formulas so that our schools had the personnel, the materials, and the extra support staff that they needed in order to be able to serve those kids in our schools, which meant that we had to shift funds from other schools. Fortunately, because we are all on the same page and had the, you know, had the conversations with community members and within school clusters that helped to make that transition much easier once we implemented that funding formula.
Christina Pate: That’s very helpful. I think when we talk about centering equity, we’re usually talking about the practices, and we often forget about the equitable access and the equitable resource allocation that’s necessary to actually support the work. So, thank you for sharing that. And Gina, you wanna share a little bit about how you all center equity in your work and how that looks in Mexico?
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: Well, you know, at the state level, we wanna ensure that all of our underserved populations get the support they need by providing school districts and charter schools the supports and resources that they need to ensure educational equity, excellence, and relevance for all students. This will happen by ensuring that there is alignment between the MLSS, the SSLE work, and the SEL framework and integrating those social emotional learning within a culturally and linguistically responsive curriculum.
Through the SSLE work that we’re currently rolling out, part of the process was to have key stakeholders within our state look at the essentials to make sure that there was alignment, to make sure that they were culturally appropriate for different areas of our state, who are focusing their efforts and educating our students in our high Native American populations, in our Hispanic populations, and our very much underserved special education populations. So, keeping in mind, all of these key pieces at the state level and making sure that the key stakeholders that we’ve asked to look at our essentials to ensure that there’s equity within that and alignment has really been a key focus for us.
Christina Pate: Yeah, that’s a really helpful example. I am hearing stakeholder input and co-creation as well as sort of the alignment with your existing culturally and linguistically responsive, sorry, I’m leaving my words, curriculum that already existed in the state and making sure that those pieces are aligned. So, I think that actually lends itself well to the next question, which is really around collaboration and co-creation. This safe and supportive learning environments work involves a lot of collaboration and a lot of relationships and co-creation. Gina, what does that look like for you?
I know you mentioned a little bit just now around input specifically for the essentials, but, generally, what does that look like for you in the state of New Mexico, and what are some of the things that you’ve faced when you’re trying to do that type of work?
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: Well, you know, at Priority Schools Bureau, we have a lot of relationships that we’ve built through many of our other leadership programs. Through those relationships, it can be very easy for us to be able to reach out and pull people on board to be part of our initiatives and our programs. And as I stated in the previous question, you know, we wanna make sure that there’s representation from a lot of subgroups. We also want representation from the Public Ed Department and some of my colleagues who are with the Safe and Supportive, Safe and Healthy Schools Bureau, and one particular person is part of the essential work in that she is currently learning the essentials. So, the work that she’s doing through the Safe and Healthy Schools Bureau, she can see that there’s alignment and be able to, it is our hopes, embed the essentials within the work that is rolling out on a greater state level.
In regards to our participants or our districts who are participating, we’re very thoughtful about who we invited to participate, because we wanted to ensure that there was equal voice with a variety of our subgroups, and we also wanted to keep in mind that with all the craziness going on and all of the roll outs of all of the different expectations that our school leaders had, that these essentials were things that they could take in, they could reflect on, and then they could go out and they could share with the rest of their school districts. So, not only are they learning the essentials within the districts, but then they will go back to their district and they will teach those essentials within their schools, which is gonna increase the sustainability of the SSLE essentials work.
Christina Pate: Right. Yeah, I heard a couple of really key pieces in there I wanna pull out. I first heard the sort of communication and collaboration within the state, within the SEA, making sure that people are aligned. So, any of these state level folks know that there’s usually overlapping and duplicative stuff happening, and nobody knows about it within an SEA. And so, I think that’s a really nice way that you all have intentionally collaborated across those different departments. And then I also heard sort of the alignment and the collaboration from the state level with the districts and all of those districts being so diverse, whether that’s racially, ethnically, you know, SES wise and all of those things.
So, thank you so much for helping us understand how you do that so well. Dr. Prejean-Harris, can you tell us a little bit about how you in Atlanta Public Schools are approaching your collaboration and co-creation in this work?
Rose Prejean-Harris: Yeah, I think I mentioned it a little bit in my presentation, but as a ESSA SSEL department, we get to work with everybody in the district, and so you can easily see the alignment of the work and where the work sometimes overlaps. And so, it was very important to kinda bring all of those key players to the table with the end-user in mind. And so, we have lots of departments that kinda do some work that’s very similar. And so, when we were building the SSLE modules, we brought all of those key players to the table because we wanted everybody to have a common language, align all of their work, make sure that we weren’t using resources repeatedly in the same way to help the same group of people.
So, we brought those departments together, student services, SEL, academics, employee wellness, employee engagement, human resources who oversees the orientation for all of our staff members. So, we wanted to make sure that the language was common, that we can put all of our thoughts and processes together in one place, that we can have a United front in terms of delivering what exactly a safe and supportive environment looks like, and then not negating the voice of the teachers and the students, because they are definitely the end-users, right? And so we have, I think what’s unique in Atlanta Public Schools is that we have a culture within our clusters, which is our groupings of schools, that is very unique to each of those clusters.
And so, we wanted them to be able to bring their voice into that work too. And so, the assumption was not that this is the end all be all of these modules but let’s have a dialogue and a conversation around what a safe and supportive learning environment looks like and how can we have these essential agreements around what our school will feel like, what our district will feel like, and how we will show those things in terms of our expectations going moving forward.
Christina Pate: Yes, that is one of my favorite knowings from working with you and with Atlanta Public Schools is a real intention around identifying at the local level, and I’m talking about at a school level for those cluster levels, of what their definitions of success are. So what a safe and supportive learning environment looks like for them and really having these processes and these systems and structures in place in order to do that. So, thank you so much for sharing that. So, that sort of is a nice segue into the next piece around systems and structures. We know that a critical piece is often, this systems and structures piece is often missing.
So, when we think about implementation and sustainability, and I was also noticing some dialogue in the chat about how our systems are built, right, to create and perpetuate inequities. So, what systems and structures do we need to be in place for this work to be implemented effectively, for it to be equitable, for it to be sustainable? Maybe we can hear from the district first and then we’ll, I’ll move back to the states.
Rose Prejean-Harris: Well, I think one of the big moves that happened is that our school board said, “Hey, we’re gonna put some policies in place to make sure that this work is being done.” So, that was the creation of our center for equity. That was the creation of our restorative practices policy. We have also another policy that really deals with student support and trauma and how that work is important. And so with that, once we had the policy to back up the work of our departments, we then could create those system’s instructors in our schools. So, our care teams I think are probably one of the most important pieces that bring all of that work together because it personalizes for each individual student their particular needs.
I think the other piece, with us introducing the universal screener, which I had some apprehension about at first, because if you don’t use the data right, it could be harmful to kids, right? And so, I think the messaging around that was that this is not diagnostic. All we want to do is to be able to identify kids we may not have been able to identify in the past and provide them with the support that they need. And I think that’s a messaging piece from the district, right? So as a district level, we had to decide, what are our true supports that we’re going to provide for individual students and what systems do we need to put in place in order to be able to provide that support, thinking of the individual student in mind?
And so, you’ll see a big push from our district on using data for accountability, making sure that we are personalizing support and learning for our students, and making sure that we have the correct support systems in place by building the capacity of our staff in order to be able to provide that support for them.
Christina Pate: Wonderful. So, I’m hearing every level of the system here, whether it’s the board, policies, funding, communication, strategies, and data, all of those things, to then move back down to the personal level, to personalize it for each student. That’s wonderful, thank you for sharing that. And Gina, do you have anything you wanna share about what systems and structures that you find need to be in place for this work to be effective and sustainable?
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: I think the first thing, you know, we’re in a pilot phase right now. So, the first thing was just buy-in. And, you know, because of, as I stated earlier, because of those relationships that we’d built across the state, we knew that the people that we reached out to we’re gonna have some buy-in to this. That initially started when we first rolled this out in LAUNCH. And then we called them the kernels where they were getting also some bite sized pieces of things that they could implement, and these school leaders could go back to their schools and start the conversations with their staff and the importance of the work in SSLE. So, that’s where it all began.
Currently, in our pilot phase, we’re still rolling out the essentials. So, it’s my hopes as we move forward that the districts that are piloting this work will create systems and with the help of myself and our Priority Schools Bureau, we can establish some systems and create some guardrails for them to be able to make this work sustainable. Having staff members from the NMPED, myself and a colleague and another colleague, we want to ensure that we can be able to continue this work. And once all of the essentials are learned, we’ll be able to go out and spread the word, have more conversations with other districts that aren’t in the pilot and be able to hopefully have some sustainability and work with districts to also, you know, build and implement those systems.
Christina Pate: Wonderful. I’m hearing a real focus on stakeholder engagement, co-creation as a way to build or co-build systems that are really personalized for those unique contexts that certainly are evident across the state. Last but not least, I know we’re running up against our Q and A time, so, we’ll try to make this one a little bit shorter, but this work is complex and challenging at every level, but I’m someone who’s always looking for opportunities in the challenges. So, maybe a final word on, maybe a challenge that you faced and an opportunity that lies in there, or maybe some of your successes working through some of the challenges, whoever would like to start.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: I can start. I think the biggest thing is sustainability. I think that’s the biggest thing that we run across is, you know, we’re in the work right now and we want nothing more than the work of SSLE to go across our entire state, to touch every district, every school, every child, and it’s something that is so needed right now in our state. So, because of the pandemic, it slowed down our rollout, and you know, this work should be implemented right now. That’s my, you know, this is where we need to be. We need to be in the schools doing this as we speak. Unfortunately-
Rose Prejean-Harris: I think we had a… Gina had a little technical issue, so I’ll pick up and then when she pops back on,
Christina Pate: Oh, there she is.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: Sorry about that.
Christina Pate: No worries, its real life. Go ahead.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: Yes. Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we’ve had to shift our rollout. So, I think that’s been probably the most frustrating thing is that initially we were supposed to, in August, learn the essentials, bring everybody together, learn the essentials, and then start implementation within the school year. Because we’ve had to pivot, we were not gonna be able to really implement until the next school year. So, I think that’s been the biggest frustration or the biggest challenge, is getting this work out in a more timely manner. And of course, because of the pandemic, we can’t control that. So, we just have to pivot and move forward and hope that moving forward, we can get this workout.
Christina Pate: And you certainly have, quite adaptable. Thank you so much. And Dr. Prejean-Harris, the last word from you.
Rose Prejean-Harris: So, I wanna say that the challenge and the opportunity is the same. I think that we have thought about student support as a competing priority to our academic piece. And one of the things that I appreciated was when Atlanta Public Schools moved SEL from the student behavior support side to the Office of Academics and Teaching and Learning side of the division. Knowing that these aren’t competing priorities but that they should be intertwined together, right? Like, we cannot not support students. Even though our main business is making sure that they have an education, we have to make sure that they’re also supported.
And so, with that, there are both challenges and opportunities to make sure that those things are really coming together so that we are really creating a space where we have kids who know that they’re coming into an environment where they’re cared for, that we have adults who are able to take care of those needs for those students, and that they both can thrive, right? And we could get both of the pieces done together. And so, I think that has for a whole, a long time, been an issue within our educational realm. We can’t separate one from the other. We can’t separate humanity from academics. And we have to remember that we’re all human.
We have a human side and that when we come into spaces, we bring who we are, regardless of math, English, science or social studies. And so, it’s about intertwining those two. So there, it’s both the challenge and the opportunity.
Christina Pate: Beautiful way to wrap us up. We serve the whole child, the whole person, the whole school, the whole community, right? So, thank you so much to you both. I’m gonna pass it over to my colleague Jenny Betz who’s gonna take us through some questions and answers. I think there’s been a few submitted.
Jenny Betz: Yeah, thanks. You know, it’s like, oh, why are we stopping, but we’re not actually stopping. We’re going for another 15 minutes, and we definitely got some great questions from the participants through the chat and the Q and A and also some ahead of time when people registered. So, I’m gonna start with one that really relates to what you’ve already been talking about in terms of really being aligned and comprehensive, and someone asked, you know, from the state or district level, how does all the work that you’re doing really sort of trickle down to the school level or the classroom level or even outside of that, like afterschool programs and other supporting programs? Either of you could-
Rose Prejean-Harris: I guess I’ll start. I think one of the ways that we have done that is really to focus on improvement science, because we know that implementation is the beast of all things, right? So, either you’re a good implementer or you’re not a good implementer, but we also have to make sure that we’re implementing to really support what that school needs. And so, when we work individually with the schools, through that improvement science process, we know that implementation occurs at a higher level. And so, we’ve kinda used that system of support in order to be able to trickle down to the student level, right?
Our programming, making sure that it actually reaches the end user that we want it to reach. So, I think that’s very important, right? It also brings about a level of accountability for everybody at every different level, from our office to the administration at the school to the teacher implementing it in the classroom. So, I think that that thing is so important that we have to be able to continuously look at the work and make sure that it’s doing what we need it to do. And that’s really to support the students that are in the classroom.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: And I would just, just at the district level, the participants at our district level, their commitment to this work and wanting to ensure that it gets to their students. They realize the importance of creating safe spaces for children, for their students. and there has been a lot of trauma, not only through this pandemic, but in our state in particular, you know, the trauma that families have faced at a variety of levels, cultural, systemic, poverty, because our districts, you know, their communities, they want to make them better. So, I believe the whole buy-in of their commitment to participating in the pilot and their wanting and their desire to make things better for the children in their communities is going to help that sustainability. And that’s my hopes, once we roll this out in the next school year.
Jenny Betz: Thank you both, and you know what I’m hearing from both of you is the importance of not just being this top down. I think at the school level, we know, and even the district level, as we relate to states so often it’s like, just feels like stuff is just getting like pushed down, pushed down from on top and, but that you all are really working to see, does this actually work? Like, listening to what do schools really need, what’s going on? And then continuously looking, is this working?
I think it’s really important. And also, Rose, to your point about everyone having some stake in talking about equity or dealing with equity or SEL. It’s not just your department, it’s not just the school counselor or the one person who does PBIS or something like that, or SEL specifically, but that really everyone has a place in that.
Rose Prejean-Harris: It’s kinda like owning a home, right Jenny? Once you have it, you own it, right? So I like to-
Jenny Betz: True.
Rose Prejean-Harris: I like to use the word ownership rather than buy-in because once you own it, like, you really are in there for the long haul and making sure that it’s working the way that it needs to work for your particular population.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: I like that, Rose.
Jenny Betz: We should write that down, please write that down. It’s like a house, once you own it, it’s yours. You gotta keep it up too, right?
Rose Prejean-Harris: Yeah
Jenny Betz: You gotta mow the lawn, get a new roof every once in a while. Thank you. You know, the next couple of questions are more about folks needing a little bit of maybe some advice from you having both done this work for so long and doing such amazing stuff. So, one is actually from someone who’s newer to the field and asks, “What’s one of the most important pieces of advice “you would give to a first-year teacher “trying to do this work, “but doesn’t have a ton of, you know, extra training in this?”
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: I would say build relationships. That’s the most important thing that you can do is to take the time from the get go. When you meet your students, is to get to know them, get to know their family, build those strong relationships with your students. Because once you build a relationship with them, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. If they feel safe to come to you with things that might be happening at home or if you get to know them so well that you can read their cues when things aren’t going well, it’s gonna make such an impact for them. Many kids don’t have strong relationships at home.
And sometimes their teachers are the most important, strongest relationship that they’re gonna have and the most positive influence. So, as a new teacher and as myself who taught and who worked in early intervention, where, you know, I worked with children out of the NICU, I worked with shaken babies. For me to be able to create goals for them to improve their quality of life, they needed to feel safe around me. Nothing was gonna happen. They weren’t gonna do a thing unless that relationship was built and they felt safe with me.
So, that would be probably the number one thing is just get to know your students and let them feel safe around you. And be vulnerable, be vulnerable to them too.
Rose Prejean-Harris: Yeah. I absolutely agree, and then I would add to that is find a critical friend. And find someone who doesn’t have the same planning period with you so that they could come into your classroom and observe you, give you feedback, constructive feedback, and just conserve as a person that you can debrief with. Write about the things that you’re trying in your classroom or with your students. And so, I think having that person to debrief with and to go through the work with, you know, you may have it in a formal way in your PLCs, but I think just having that extra person there as a critical friend would really help you to move your work along, just to have an additional eye.
Like, come observe me doing this lesson, right? Or come observe my classroom and see what are some things that I could do to make it more safe for my students or more inviting or whatever it is. But I think that critical friend is, when I think back on my career, I’ve had those people in those moments in my teaching career that helped me to become a better teacher, a better educator.
Jenny Betz: Thank you. And sometimes we call them accountabili-buddies, right? It’s your accountability buddy, accountabili-buddies that, yeah, being able to also have that relationship that feels safe, like, tell me and I can take it in. Even if it hurts, right? Like, to be better, we have to be able to take that feedback. Thank you. The last question that I have for y’all before we have to start sort of wrapping up is about parent engagement and what really, what role parents or families play in all of this, you know, in all of this work really, at all different levels.
Rose Prejean-Harris: Hmm. So I think I’ll start.
Jenny Betz: Sure.
Rose Prejean-Harris: This is really one of our major focus for the past, now two years. We’ve been training our parent liaisons in our programming, so that they can redeliver to parents so that they could hear the same type of language. They know that SEL skills, we’re not trying to change your kid, we’re just trying to teach them life skills that will really benefit them in other avenues, areas. So, when kids come home and they’re talking about mama, I need you to do belly breathing, that they understand that they’re not trying to correct you, that they’re really learning these particular skills in class.
So, we’ve been working with parent liaison to try to bridge that gap between what we’re doing in the schools and what parents are getting at home. And teaching parents those same skills so that they can practice with their kids. So, I think that’s an important aspect of the parent engagement piece and then just as much outreach as possible. I think we make sure that we’re at parent engagement activities, we make sure that we go out into the communities and just have a very open base of communication. And that the feedback is dual. That we’re listening to the dialogue of the parents. Like, what is it that you are saying that you need support with also?
So, I think that’s a very important piece that we keep that communication piece open, that they’re able to give us feedback also, not just us giving to them out from the school level, or district level, that we allow opportunities for them to come back to us also and give us feedback.
Jenny Betz: Thank you.
Regina (Gina) Garcia Timms: I totally agree. I would just add, with parent engagement, just having that common language and that what the kids are hearing in the school, the parents are also hearing, and also to be mindful that as our staff also has gone through trauma, so have our families. So, being able to even be an ear to our parents and really take that into perspective as far as what their needs are, which is gonna help support your students and their child as well. So, just keeping the conversation open and moving forward.
Once we roll out the SSLE essentials, I’ll probably be reaching out to Rose for some of the things that she’s doing for parent engagement, but being able to create some systems for parents, and that’s definitely something that we wanna keep in mind as we move forward.
Jenny Betz: Thank you. And really there’s no time where that’s more needed than right now. We at WestEd, we’re not in schools, but we are working with schools and districts and states every day and hearing, everybody is really stressed right now. And things are hard on the ground. So, if there’s ever a time to be supporting your school level folks, whether that’s students, staff, or families, now really is the time. I want to thank you so much, Rose and Gina, for your contributions. I wish we could keep talking. Luckily, we know you so we will keep talking, and we’ll definitely get the archive and everything out to folks.
I’m just gonna share my screen one more time here, just to let folks know that… Sorry. So, for more information about what we’ve been doing at WestEd around Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, you can email us anytime at SSLE@WestEd.org or check out our website, and that’s a really long link so feel free to use the QR code. That’ll just take you right there. Definitely reach out to us SSLE@WestEd.org. And we’ll be following up. Thank you again, again, again, Christina, and of course, Rose and Gina, and I hope everyone has a great day. Please stick around, Danny has some final comments for us.
Danny Torres: Well, thank you very much, Dr. Pate and Dr. Prejean-Harris, Gina and Jenny for a great session. Thank you to all our participants for joining us. We really appreciate you being here. As I mentioned at the start, we’ll be hosting a live Twitter chat tomorrow. Please join us online on Twitter on October 6th. We’ll be posting and responding to questions about Safe and Supportive Learning Environments. Our Twitter handle is @WestEd. We hope to see you there. If you’d like to get updates on future Leading Voices sessions, please subscribe to our email list at WestEd.org/subscribe.
And finally, feel free to reach out to Christina or Jenny via email if you have questions about their Safe and Supportive Learning Environment work. And with that, I’d like to thank all of you for joining us. Be well. Until next time, thank you.
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