Moving From All Students to Each Student
“We are proud to say that we outperform the state at every grade level and on every test,” says Becky Ballbach, director of student support services for Everett Public Schools, “and at our traditional high schools, four-year graduation rates are among the highest in the state due to our clear focus on the success of each student.” Everett School District is one of the larger and more economically and ethnically diverse districts in Washington State, with 27 schools and approximately 20,000 students, of which 37.6 percent are eligible for free-and-reduced lunch.
In 2004, graduation rates hovered around 53.4 percent, so district leaders convened a summit to focus on strategies that could improve on-time degree completion. That marked the beginning of a journey toward a 100-percent graduation rate. Everett School District’s quantitative data shows significant progress. In 2017, the district reported 94 percent of students graduating in four years and 95 percent of students graduating within five years.
But the vision goes beyond graduation. According to the district’s updated strategic plan, the goal is to prepare students to become well-rounded, healthy, and flexible in their thinking so they can adapt as needed in a rapidly changing world. To achieve that goal, the plan includes a strong emphasis on a coordinated, whole-child, and whole-district approach to social-emotional learning (SEL).
In a recent Education Week webinar, Ballbach and one of her colleagues, Catherine Matthews, director of assessment and research, walked participants through Everett’s consolidated strategy for achieving its SEL goals. Previously, the district focused on academic efforts that helped “all students,” whereas now programs are more holistically designed to help “each student” thrive. More specifically, Second Step has been integrated into a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) using Positive Behavioral Interventions (PBIS). Tactics include universal education to prevent problem behavior, trauma-informed interventions, and more intense family and therapy-based support as needed.
Matthews explained that, because Everett is such a diverse district, she works hard to look at a variety of metrics and disaggregated data to better understand the many factors contributing to or impeding student success.
”I think about data in terms of wanting to get information that is actionable and that helps us to solve the right problem,” says Matthews, who focuses on gathering data that aligns with the district’s strategic goal of strengthening characteristics commonly identified with a well-rounded modern education, including: grit, growth mindset, self-management, a sense of belonging, social awareness, and teacher-student relationships. She says one of the most important tips to keep in mind when delving into student data is that it’s important to ask the right questions and consider the relative big picture to find the most effective interventions. For example, Everett has observed general trends, such as older students having a lower sense of belonging than younger students. They use data to make observations and spot potential problem areas, which they can then address proactively.
Tia Kim, vice president of education, research, and impact at Committee for Children, says the Everett School District provides a good example of using data and SEL interventions effectively to improve social, emotional, and academic outcomes for its students. She says Everett uses the Second Step lessons and games both in classroom settings to directly teach specific skills in a well-planned, coordinated way, as well as in smaller, pull-out groups and one-on-one settings. “Research shows that children benefit the most from SEL instruction when they have repeated opportunities to practice SEL skills,” says Kim. In addition to adopting an integrated SEL approach, Kim says Everett has also embraced best practices such as providing robust teacher training and engaging families to reinforce skills at home.
In addition to conducting an annual climate survey, the Everett School District contracts with Panorama Education to offer a stand-alone online SEL survey, which takes about 15–20 minutes to complete. The information helps the district better understand the status and progress of students’ social-emotional health and identify focus areas for improvement.
Since Everett School District has focused its attention on including SEL as part of a complete education, graduation rates have steadily improved. More specifically, Matthews and Ballbach agree that the district has achieved encouraging results by closely monitoring each student’s progress and by modeling positive social-emotional skills in developmentally appropriate ways.
Second Step lessons have been integrated in such a way that the entire learning culture now embraces SEL. Ballbach emphasizes that, by specifically teaching social-emotional skills and addressing students’ unique social-emotional needs, teachers and staff spend less time managing behavior challenges, which means they have more time to teach academic skills.
When SEL is proactively taught and reinforced throughout the day, Ballbach says the expectation is graduation rates will continue to improve, as well as other indicators of future success. For example, if students can learn to collaborate and adapt skillfully to new workplace and global paradigms with empathy and respect, they will be better prepared, not just for college and career, but for life.