December 28, 2017 by

Community Partnerships Accelerate Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

More than 50 years ago, the distinguished education psychologist and author James P. Comer shook the education establishment by arguing that schools should expand their vision of what students needed to succeed in life and to become productive citizens and family members.

Yes, academic skills were essential, Dr. Comer acknowledged, but he upped the ante. He argued the world needed adults who could tolerate frustration, show self-discipline, organize themselves in busy environments, and possess the interpersonal skills to get along with others. The need was urgent, he added, but schools weren’t addressing these skills, particularly for children from low-income families

I would like to suggest that not only are we finally listening to Dr. Comer, but that the nation is taking steps every day toward making his vision a reality for more students.

To understand just how far some schools have come, the 25-member Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development visited Tacoma, Wash., recently. We went to learn more about the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative as part of our two-year effort to understand how social, emotional, and academic development can be integrated across classrooms and communities. Our findings and recommendations will be released late next year.

Now in its fifth year, the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative seeks to ensure that students can read, write, and solve math problems, and also be socially strong, emotionally resilient, and able to persevere to achieve their goals. This combination of preparation is urgently needed in the workforce, military, and in all sectors of our civic life.

Significantly, the Tacoma public school district does not attempt this work alone. It relies on a network of local and national partners to sustain the initiative, including the University of Washington-Tacoma, the City of Tacoma, the Boys and Girls Club, and many others. These partners provide the mentoring, afterschool programs, workplace internships, and other experiences needed to help develop the whole child.

Commissioners were impressed with data on the Tacoma district’s rising graduation rates, decreasing disciplinary incidents, increased access to extracurricular activities, and impressive list of partners. However, it was the students, educators, and the larger community who sold us on the success and promise of the student-focused changes happening in Tacoma.

One of the two schools we visited was Jason Lee Middle School, which won ASCD’s 2016 “Vision in Action” award for its focus on the whole child. Jason Lee is a 600 student school in the kind of traditional red-brick building that you can find anywhere in America. It’s what’s inside that’s different.

Students are keenly aware of the progress their school has made. One after another, they shared stories of older siblings and parents warning them that Jason Lee was dangerous. That gangs ruled the hallways and they should consider options across town. Then they sat up, smiled, and talked about the school they know today.

“We have a voice. When we talk about what we want and what we want to change, we see it happen. Teachers listen to us. That’s why I think of this school as a family,” said Grace, a seventh grader.

“We really like the teachers here because they care about us and push us. They push us so hard that sometimes our wheels come off,” added Carlos, who is in eighth grade. “That’s how we know they care about us.”

District and school staff attribute the transformation to the renewed focus on social, emotional, and academic development, as well as focused academic interventions. For example, Jason Lee is a national demonstration school for a program called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which provides academic and social support for underperforming students. The school also makes physical activity a priority, addressing students’ basic needs and ensuring the conditions for learning.

School leaders say that disciplinary actions have dropped significantly since teachers and students were given more options to deal with frustration, including “zone passes” that allow students to take a break and go to the library, office, or simply to sit alone. As one administrator explained, “We avoid power-driven relationships, and instead give students more control over themselves.”

Principal Christine Brandt explained that student progress is carefully monitored. Students who earn one or more Ds on a report card get immediate attention from a team that includes a social worker. She added that the most important part of her job is hiring the right people.

“Not every teacher is going to be a good fit here,” she said. “This is a working-class community and students are not always ready to learn. Teachers must be flexible and able to put student needs first.”

We also visited a school that made me feel as though I were at the summer camp of my dreams. The Science and Math Institute High School, known as SAMi, is located in the city’s Point Defiance Park on space shared with MetroParks, which is the city’s recreation department, and the Point Defiance Zoo. Students actually share sidewalks with peacocks.

Aside from the scenic environs where the opportunities for hands-on learning are endless, social and emotional learning is front and center. This culture begins with each freshman being assigned a student mentor group from the first day of school, easing their transition and building their confidence. Students pursue internships that allow them to learn life and workplace skills in exciting settings such as the Point Defiance Zoo or Tacoma Art Museum.

“You cannot learn if you are not feeling safe. Students need to know if someone is caring for them and their post-high school plans,” said Liz Minks, the co-director of SAMi. “Students need to know there is an adult they can go to and not get in trouble. That’s why each of our students has a mentor.”

As a former military officer, I understand the wisdom in the saying, “Trust but verify.” In fact, as we think about how the Commission will report on its work, we cannot just ask people to trust us. There are critics who tell me that social-emotional skills should be taught in the home and are not the purview of schools or communities, or that teaching these skills is just too much to ask of schools. I respect those perspectives. But the reality is that learning happens at home, in school, and in the community.

When done right, families, schools, and communities can and are supporting one another in this essential mission. I know that ASCD and its members are committed to a collaborative approach to supporting the whole child.

The National Commission is committed to learning from our partners like ASCD and communities like Tacoma. That’s why visiting Tacoma was so important. We now have one more example that allows us to not only ask for trust, but to verify that social, emotional, and academic learning can be effectively integrated. And when it is, we are all better off, just as Dr. Comer knew we would be.

Access more examples of social, emotional, and academic development and the research supporting this approach.


Craig R. McKinley is the former president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association. He retired after 38 years in the Air Force as a four-star general in November 2012.

ASCD is a member of the National Commission’s Partners Collaborative.