Blaine County students lag behind their peers in the social and emotional aspects of their education, according to results of new survey from the School District presented to its board of trustees last week.
Middle and secondary students scored below the national average in five of seven categories measured by the education firm Panorama’s SEL Survey, which was administered in grades two, four, seven, nine and 11 for the first time this year.
Equally disquieting to members of the board: The percentage of favorable responses declined with age in nearly every category, with high school juniors showing the lowest marks.
“Something happens bet-ween when they’re little kids and they’re confident in themselves, and when they get older,” Trustee Kelly Green said. “They go through school, and the environment changes. They have interactions that are less favorable. They have bullying, increased risk of substance abuse. These are things attacking our students that we cannot ignore.
“I think it has to do with the environment our kids are growing up in right now. There’s more stuff they have to deal with.”
The survey was adopted to test the district’s progress in its Social Emotional Learning curriculum, a stated goal of its 2015 strategic plan. It measures on a five-point scale ranging from not likely to extremely likely, assessing seven topics: “emotional regulation”; “grit,” or how well students deal with adversity; “growth mindset,” which measures whether students feel they have the potential for scholastic improvement; “self-efficacy,” related to how much students believe they can succeed; “self-management” of emotions, thoughts and behavior; “social awareness,” including empathy; and “social perspective-taking,” which assesses students’ ability to consider other perspectives, including their teachers’.
“It’s critical that our children be ready to learn when they come to school,” Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes said during a school board meeting May 14. “If they’re not ready, it is essential that we help them—whatever the issue might be, we need to help them learn to handle it.”
That was the idea when the School District began rolling out its Social Emotional Learning curriculum during the 2016-17 school year. Developed by a special committee, the program looks different at different grades, according to Director of Curriculum and Teaching Angie Martinez. Elementary schools build these soft skills into their class day. Middle schools integrate instruction into their curriculum through subjects like literature and outdoor leadership classes. In high schools, it takes place in concert with advisors.
Focuses may shift as data from future surveys paints a clearer picture, Martinez said.
“We’re addressing it intentionally, as skills that we feel are important for our students to learn,” she said. “If that wellness isn’t in place, engagement goes down, and it’s harder to accomplish academic goals.”
Data and Assessment Coor-
dinator Marcia Grabow put it in starker terms.
“I went to school with some kids who were very capable, but lacked social and emotional skills,” Grabow said. “They dropped out. There was nothing to keep them in school.”
Teachers have access to individual student responses to the surveys, which were administered twice this year. At Silver Creek High School, they’re already putting it to work, according to Director of Student Services Debi Gutknecht. There, staff approached students to find out what factors underlie their responses, through written questions and face-to-face interviews. Sometimes, unfavorable answers were as simple as the season, or not seeing the value in the questions asked, Gutknecht told the trustees. Others had deeper roots.
Silver Creek High School already has plans to educate its students on the purpose of the survey, and to deploy social workers monitoring areas flagged for concern. The remaining schools will draft plans of their own as teachers and administrators filter through building- and student-specific data.
“What we do know is that social and emotional health and well-being does lay a good foundation for success in school,” Gutknecht said. “If you really look at the survey results, you see that many of our students are struggling in these areas. We’re not there yet. We still have work to do.”
The added burden on teachers concerned some members of the school board, fresh off protracted contract negotiations to set working conditions for district staff.
But for Green, it’s an essential task.
“I think it’s something we have to address, because times have changed,” she said. “Family structures have changed, and a lot of what used to happen in the home doesn’t happen in the home anymore. This is something we have to address in school so our students can function.”