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New study describes how diverse high schools successfully implement social emotional learning

April 24, 2015

Link to the series of reports

STANFORD, CA — A growing body of research shows that when schools attend to students’ psychological, social, and emotional development alongside academic learning, student engagement and academic achievement improve. What is less well understood is how practices that address these needs can be implemented on a school-wide basis, especially at the high school level.

A new study produced by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education and funded by the NoVo Foundation addresses implementation of social emotional learning strategies at the high school level and how they can be tuned to meet the needs of students in diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic contexts. 

The study, Social Emotional Learning in High School: How Three Urban High Schools Engage, Educate, and Empower Youth, looks at effective social emotional learning practices at three socioeconomically and racially diverse small public high schools located in Boston, Brooklyn, and San Antonio. Through in-depth case studies, a student survey, and a comparison of student survey results to a national sample of students, the authors investigate the ways in which these schools design, implement, and practice school-wide social emotional learning, and its effect on students' educational experiences and outcomes.

For school-wide implementation to be particularly effective and empowering for diverse student communities, the authors found that schools must integrate social justice education approaches along with social emotional learning. While social emotional learning can foster students’ capacity to know themselves, build and maintain supportive relationships, and participate in their school communities as socially responsible citizens, social justice education integrates culturally-relevant, asset-based, identity-safe, and empowerment-oriented practices that have shown to improve outcomes for traditionally underserved students, including low-income students and students of color. 

"Research shows that while meeting students' psychological, social, and emotional needs is important for all students, doing it effectively requires understanding what this means for diverse student communities," said MarYam Hamedani, Associate Director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and the project director on the study. "While psychological supports alone cannot make up for the learning challenges of high-poverty contexts, nor eliminate the challenges faced by historically underserved students, they can mitigate the effects and make achievement possible. By attending to these needs as well as academic content, schools can foster trust, safety, and community among students and adults in the school; change students’ beliefs about education and themselves as learners; reduce the pernicious threat of stereotypes and biases about students’ potential and ability; and enable students to cultivate skills that render education meaningful and relevant."

"While social emotional learning is critical to providing students with an equitable education, we found that an expanded vision incorporating a social justice education perspective is essential," said Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford University Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education and SCOPE Faculty Director. "Each of the schools in this study has developed ways to implement these approaches successfully." 

Following are some key recommendations for practice and policy from the study. To see the full series — three case studies, a cross-case analysis, a technical report, research brief, and executive summary, please visit:

Recommendations for practice and policy

Erase the cognitive/non-cognitive divide in education. Academic, social, and emotional factors are essentially interwoven, mutually interdependent, and should not be considered in isolation from one another. They are critical to all students’ opportunity to learn, but also matter in particular ways for students of color and for students in low-income contexts. 

Leverage a “whole-child” perspective on student development. Education, more broadly, and social and emotional learning in particular, also needs to align with students’ key developmental pathways that evolve through their elementary, middle school, and high school years. 

Leverage a “social justice education perspective” on social emotional learning. To ensure that social emotional learning is conceptualized, implemented, and practiced to effectively meet the needs of diverse student communities, educators must consider how to engage and empower, rather than manage and regulate, their students. 

Engage systemic, whole-school change. Social emotional learning will be most effective when practiced and implemented comprehensively and coherently across key levels of the school—climate and culture, features and structures, and formal and informal practices—as well as when its practice is supported by districts. 

Teach social emotional skills explicitly and ensure that they are reflected and reinforced by school practices. Schools can do this by locating a place in the curriculum, possibly in advisory class, where students and teachers can develop and practice key skills and competencies. 

Include a social emotional perspective in curricular and assessment policies. Students are motivated, engaged, and responsible when their education is connected to who they are and what they care about. Curricula should be relevant, real world, and socially oriented. Assessment practices should reinforce the development of social emotional skills, enable students to apply what they learn in relevant ways, and reflect the ways in which learning is collaborative and interactional. 

Establish restorative approaches to discipline through practices that preserve relationships, respect dignity, and provide psychological support. Students of color and students in poverty are disproportionately affected by harsh or zero-tolerance policies, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, which do nothing to address the chronic stressors that often result in behavioral issues for these students. 

Enable educators to become psychological, as well as academic, experts. Preservice teacher training programs, as well as teacher and administrator certification requirements and continuing education opportunities, need to provide educators with the skills they need to cultivate classrooms and schools that support students’ psychological, social, and emotional needs along with their academic needs.

About the Case Study Schools

Fenway High School, Boston, MA 
Fenway is a small, public high school. As a pilot school Fenway is part of the district, but has autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum and assessment, and the school calendar. At Fenway, students participate in a 4-year course of study that includes capstone projects and portfolios, structured supports, experiential education, and community service and senior internship requirements. A key part of the Fenway experience is “learning by doing,” with support from key community partners, like Boston’s Museum of Science and Blue Cross Blue Shield. In the 2012–13 academic year, 67% of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, 12% were English language learners, and 17% received special education services. The majority of students served by Fenway are African American (41%) and Latino (46%). Many indicators point to the success of the school and its students, including better attendance, better performance on state exams, higher graduation rates, and high levels of college attendance than students in the district as a whole. Over the years, Fenway has received numerous awards and accolades and is widely seen as an exemplar of how to provide a high quality education for students typically left behind by the urban public school system. For example, Fenway was one of the original 10 New American High Schools named by the U.S. Department of Education in 1996, it was named one of the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ 12 Breakthrough Schools in 2004, and it was ranked as a Bronze Medal school and listed as one of the country’s best high schools in 2014 by U.S. News & World Report. Admission to Fenway is by application; the process is designed to be open, inclusive, and non-selective. 

El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, Brooklyn, NY
El Puente is a small public high school founded in 1993 by a community-based organization (CBO) with the same name. El Puente Academy serves an unscreened population of just under 220 students who are predominantly Latino and low-income. The majority of students entering El Puente underperform in literacy and math, with scores of 1 (below basic) and 2 (basic) on a scale where 3 indicates “proficient” and 4 “advanced” on New York State’s eighth grade math and literacy tests. In the 2012–13 school year, 83% of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and the school’s proportion of special education students (23%) is high compared to most schools. The proportion of English language learners (19%) is also notably higher than the city average. Despite the challenges faced by its student population, in recent years the school has achieved a 4-year graduation rate of 68% and above, and a 5-year graduation rate that has reached as high as 80%—exceeding New York City district averages. As a member of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which engages students in a set of project-based performance assessments, El Puente students are exempt from all state exams except for the English Regents, which they pass at a higher rate than the district average. In 2003, El Puente was first recognized as one of the New York City Department of Education’s “Schools of Excellence” and continues to receive an “A” grade on the DOE’s official report card. Students are admitted to El Puente through New York City’s high school choice admission process.

International School of the Americas, San Antonio, TX
The International School of the Americas (ISA) is a small, public magnet high school co-located on the campus of Robert E. Lee High School—a large, comprehensive high school—with two other small magnet schools. ISA combines a dual emphasis on a caring school community and high academic standards with a 21st-century global focus that is inspired by and aligns with the goals of the Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network (ISSN), of which ISA is a participating school. The 34 public schools in the ISSN, all located in the United States, are challenged with a mission “to develop college-ready, globally competent high school graduates." ISA’s approach depends on academic rigor, a relevant curriculum, and performance-based ways of assessing student progress. ISA is consistently noted as a top high school in both the state and the nation by such organizations as Children at Risk and U.S. News & World Report. ISA students overall performed better on state exams, graduated at higher rates, were more likely to be college-ready, and were more likely to attend college than students in the district as a whole. ISA draws its students from more than 25 middle schools across San Antonio as well as a few schools from surrounding areas. Acceptance is determined by a lottery system; the school does not use achievement-based criteria for admission. In the 2012–13 school year, the majority of students who attend ISA were Latino (55%) and White (36%). Just under a quarter of students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. The school did not have any English language learners and the special education population was very small (2%).