Research & Action Report, Spring/Summer 2011

Last year, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson identified 14 “Turnaround Schools,” described as significantly underperforming and in need of monitoring, support, and reform. Twelve of these schools were also designated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as “Level 4” schools: those with consistently low scores and no substantial improvement over a four-year period in both English/ Language Arts and Mathematics on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).

In the 2010 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, school districts’ authority over Turnaround Schools was extended to allow for broader changes to staffing, budgets, curriculum, and working conditions like the length of the school day. Not surprisingly, these schools are under tremendous pressure to improve academic outcomes and testing results. Each school needed to identify improvement targets to meet over a three-year period and will face more consequences if progress is not made.

As Turnaround Schools strive to improve, they are mindful that many of their students face challenges that impede their learning. Two of these schools have increased their efforts to educate students holistically, focusing on improving student learning by better addressing students’ social and emotional needs and development.

Educating the Whole Child through SEL

As a strategy to improve students’ academic, social, and emotional outcomes, Holland Elementary and John F. Kennedy Elementary, located in Boston’s Dorchester and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods respectively, partnered with Open Circle, a leading provider of curricula and professional development for social and emotional learning (SEL) in grades Kindergarten through five.

Studies show that emotions affect learning. Positive emotions help students generate and sustain interest in learning, while unmanaged stress and poor impulse control interfere with attention and memory. Children learn best when they feel connected to a safe, caring, and highly engaging school community, while learning suffers when children feel excluded, threatened, bullied, or discouraged. Implementation of an SEL program like Open Circle creates positive learning environments and teaches students crucial social and emotional skills. Research shows that effective SEL programs not only improve social and emotional outcomes, but also improve academic achievement. Implementing Open Circle in Boston schools is particularly critical, as many students experience extraordinary social and emotional challenges due to poverty, violence, lack of family support, and countless other factors.

Central to the Open Circle approach is the year-long, grade-differentiated Open Circle Curriculum, which integrates research findings in social and emotional development with best practices in teaching, dialogue facilitation, and classroom management. It focuses on teaching children skills in three areas—self-regulation, communication, and social problem solving—all within the context of a safe, caring, and highly engaging classroom community.

Through Open Circle’s extensive professional development programs, teachers learn to effectively implement the Open Circle Curriculum and successfully facilitate conversations with students about their social and emotional development. Teachers also learn to infuse SEL throughout the school day, improving the environment for learning and increasing critical thinking skills across all academic areas.

SEL : Keys to Success

Excellent school leadership is essential to the success of these efforts. Principals Jeichael Henderson of Holland Elementary and Waleska Landing-Rivera of John F. Kennedy Elementary are dedicated, talented leaders who are deeply invested in their schools, students, and communities. Both principals recognized that SEL would be a key component to achieving the outcomes they desired for their students. Principal Landing-Rivera explained, “SEL is a priority. Our students arrive each day with many needs beyond academic ones. The students must be ready to learn, and our devoting time to SEL instruction helps with this readiness.” Principal Henderson echoed this sentiment, stating, “At Holland, we put children’s needs first, including social and emotional needs.”

Given these schools’ complex and timesensitive goals, they fast-tracked plans for implementing Open Circle school-wide. Program Co-Director Nova Biro shared, “Turnaround Schools often need customized programming and extra support to meet their unique needs. We are working closely with Holland Elementary and JFK Elementary to ensure that their SEL efforts not only meet the needs of all students and staff, but are also sustainable over the long term.”

To accomplish this, Open Circle customized its training model. Both schools immediately trained all grade-level teachers to implement the Open Circle Curriculum instead of training small cohorts of teachers over a series of three or more years. Supplementary professional development time afforded to Turnaround Schools enabled this approach, which also provided a unique opportunity for teachers to work together as a group over four full days throughout the school year, strengthening staff relationships, trust, communication, and collaboration. Training a particularly large cohort of teachers at Holland Elementary did require adjustments to Open Circle’s training model, which aims to simulate the group dynamics of a typical classroom of 25 students. In addition, as the year progressed, both schools experienced staffing changes which necessitated further training adjustments to effectively incorporate the new staff members.

Open Circle also customized its inschool coaching model. A team of four coaches with expertise in urban schools worked with the two partner Turnaround Schools. In addition to the typical twice yearly, one-on-one meetings with teachers in their classrooms, coaches facilitated gradelevel meetings on SEL and Open Circle implementation. Coaches also engaged in extra meetings with principals to assess progress and provide supplementary support. They further met with specialists and other outside partners to ensure Open Circle’s SEL efforts were well integrated with other related initiatives at each school.

Measuring Outcomes, Observing Success

Open Circle and the two partner schools are in the process of gathering data on improvement in students’ social and emotional skills as well as overall school climate. Teachers at Holland Elementary conducted mid-year assessments to determine which SEL skills students were using consistently and which ones needed further reinforcement. Teachers at both schools completed evaluations after each training session to provide feedback on their learning experience. Results have been enormously positive.

Open Circle has also gathered qualitative feedback from principals and teachers throughout the year, and teachers will complete a year-end survey to reflect on their Open Circle implementation and the outcomes they have observed in student behavior and classroom climate. This information will not only inform planning for future years of implementation in each school, but will also inform future SEL work in other Turnaround Schools in Boston and other communities.

Although it is still early in the implementation process, there are already signs of success. Principal Landing-Rivera noted that her students are increasingly articulating their needs and feelings and that Open Circle has positively impacted behavior in the school. One teacher shared that he didn’t know what he had done without Open Circle, and that it has become an integral part of his classroom. In a classroom at Holland Elementary during preparations for MCAS testing, students practiced calm breathing and positive self-talk. Teachers reported students telling themselves things such as, “I know I can do this!” Principal Landing-Rivera attributes the success of Open Circle at JFK Elementary to the fact that the teachers have embraced the initiative, saying, “Teachers bought into the program and saw the need, and it aligns with our mission as a school.”

Future updates about Open Circle’s work with Turnaround Schools and other special communities will be posted online at www.opencircle.org.