After Waves Of Reform, Nashville Schools Go Back To Basics — Teaching Kids To Build Relationships

Sep 8, 2016

His teachers say that, a year ago, it was a struggle to get Andrew Gong engaged.

That made it all the more shocking when three weeks into this school year, Andrew stood before the student body at Fall-Hamilton Elementary to share a song he'd written.

His teacher, Jennifer Burnell, asks him to perform it again a few days later. Standing beside her in their busy fourth-grade classroom, Andrew recites it for memory.

"Habit One is say it with me/Be proactive, it is indeed.
You won't ever do the wrong thing. …"

The song was as much a surprise to Burnell as anyone.

"At first I thought that he found it online. Because there's a lot of them online," she says. "And then, in the rap, it actually said specifically things we'd done in the classroom."

But not what they'd learned in math or reading or even social studies.

This was a song about being a group leader.

"Set a goal and take the steps that'll reach the goal/that you are waiting for, yeah …"

Andrew also passed out awards — in the form of Gushers candies — to classmates who he'd thought had shown leadership in the first few weeks of school.

For Andrew and other students in Metro Nashville schools, this year's curriculum goes beyond acing standardized tests. It also includes lessons in what educators call "social-emotional learning."

Working with others. Listening. Telling classmates that you care about them.

"I will use my choices to do what's right/Lift others with all my might.

"That's it," Andrew concludes. Burnell gives him a round of applause.

To many people, the past 15 years in public education have been a whirl of new tests, big initiatives and big data — concepts exemplified by terms like Common Core, TNReady and adequate yearly progress.

Now Metro schools are leading a national effort to get back to one of the basics: building strong relationships. And how they're doing it is raising alarm among some social conservatives.

Andrew has taken these lessons to heart. So have the teachers at Fall-Hamilton, a high-poverty school near the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. They work these ideas into their lessons. Students also meet every two weeks with dedicated instructors.

It's not just here. Every school in Metro Nashville has a social-emotional learning program this year.

The district is part of an eight-city effort funded by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning. The national nonprofit has given Metro Schools a $250,000-a-year grant to implement social-emotional learning.

A student at Fall-Hamilton shows a "golden ticket" awarded for good behavior. The tickets can be traded in for prizes or privileges. Schools in Nashville have cut their reliance on punitive measures in favor of positive re-enforcements.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

The effort began under former superintendent Jesse Register, but the district's new leader is also a supporter.

Director of schools Shawn Joseph announced last month that Nashville's newest school, Cambridge Early Learning Center, has received a federal grant for preschool development. A major component of the grant is developing a national model for student discipline that integrates social-emotional learning.

Meanwhile, state education officials are studying how to take the concept to other Tennessee districts. And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is helping to fund a curriculum in social-emotional learning at one Nashville charter school, Valor Collegiate Academies.

"One of the things we know is you can't focus just on the academics," says Kyla Krengel, the district's director of social-emotional learning. "You have to the climate and the academics together."

This could be seen as a pendulum swing in public education.

Reform efforts like No Child Left Behind put a premium on hard skills that can be easily tested: Whether students have mastered multiplication, or if they can write coherently about topics like the Cold War.

Social-emotional learning, on the other hand, focuses on softer skills, such as team building and self-belief.

Krengel, who was an assistant principal and classroom teacher before taking up Metro Schools' social-emotional learning program, says these skills are just as important.

"Everybody has to feel that they belong, they have to feel connected in a school, in a school district, before they can open their minds and learn."

Conservatives wary

State Rep. Sheila Butt is one of the people pushing back against the program. She grilled education officials when they presented the concept at a hearing last month.

The Columbia Republican says good teachers already understand how to create nurturing environments. Taking time out to teach those skills is at best a diversion of resources, she says. At worst, it's another way for bureaucrats to interfere in the classroom.

"This is something you do all day, every day with your students. So I don't understand why we have to set it apart," she says. "We're just using our students to try this out, and I honestly feel like teachers are doing this every single day with everything that the students do. So I don't think this is something that we need to jump into."

Other conservatives worry social-emotional learning is a Trojan horse. Concepts like tolerance could be used to promote LGBT rights, for example. They say parents should be consulted — or allowed to opt their children out.

Even some conservatives who support social-emotional learning in principle are wary.

State Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, proposed legislation last year to promote one social-emotional learning program, "The Leader In Me." He questioned why state education officials didn't support his bill.

"What's the difference now? What's the change from last session to this session?" he says.

A banner advertises Fall-Hamilton's social-emotional curriculum, which is based on a program called The Leader In Me.
Credit Chas Sisk / WPLN

Education officials say they want to promote social-emotional learning generally but do not want to steer schools toward one particular curriculum.

The critics don't persuade Mathew Portell, the principal of Nashville's Fall-Hamilton. He says social-emotional learning is essential to raising good students.

"We're not producing robots," he says. "We're not producing data points. We're not producing test scores. We're producing children."

It turns out, Fall-Hamilton's social-emotional curriculum is based on The Leader In Me. Portell says parents and teachers have been supportive of its implementation, and he predicts any time lost teaching social-emotional skills will be made up with more productivity in the classroom.

"It is what we need to do. It's what research shows what we need to do. In education, we've made some major shifts over the last several years, and unfortunately a lot of those shifts haven't included the kids."

Portell credits the emphasis on emotional well-being for improved discipline at Fall-Hamilton.

Last year, his office dealt with more than 200 serious student discipline cases. A dozen of those came just in the month of August.

So far, this year, he's handled only two.

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