• Suzanne Nason

D.C. Public Schools Aren’t Afraid to Talk About Love

The district has prioritized a social and emotional education for all learners.

In many schools and districts, it might be rare to hear the word “love” used freely and with intention by educators and administrators. But during a recent visit to Garfield Preparatory Academy in Washington, D.C., we heard from educators and District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) leadership who all shared a common message: Every learner deserves to feel loved. For the district, that simple but vital fact is a nonnegotiable piece of educating the whole child.

But how does a large school district manage to provide a whole-child education for every learner when there are so many to serve? DCPS opted to make educating the whole child an explicit priority within the district’s strategic plan.

It defines educating the whole child as providing “rigorous, joyful and inclusive academic and social emotional learning experiences to ensure all students are college and career ready,” and it aims to embed SEL in its classrooms and overall culture.

But perhaps the most distinctive part of the DCPS approach is that one of the official goals of its strategic plan, listed right between “90 percent of students graduating within four or five years” and “100 percent of schools highly rated or improving,” is “Goal 4: 100 percent of students feel loved, challenged and prepared.”

Treating SEL as a content area is a big piece of reaching that goal. DCPS offers twelve treatment interventions in support of learner mental health. It also employs a School Mental Health Team that promotes healthy relationships and emotional regulation, aiming to increase every learner’s access to mental health services. But the district understands that empowering young people through a comprehensive social and emotional education will provide them with skills they can carry throughout their lives, in and out of the classroom. To do that, educators work to treat SEL the same way schools are accustomed to treating math and reading.

“We are developing a really robust, multi-tier system of supports that includes the work Pure Edge has done with us this year,” said Dr. Deitra Bryant-Mallory, Senior Deputy Chief of Student Supports. Pure Edge continues to visit schools throughout the district to deliver Culture of Care training to educators and staff.

Bren Elliott, Chief Equity Officer, wants to ensure that “every student is in a class where they feel nurtured, supported and challenged to be their very best self.” Chandrai Jackson-Saunders, School Psychologist at Garfield Prep, explained that the challenges with which learners struggle can be academic, financial, medical and social-emotional, and schools must recognize the impact all of those factors can have on learning. This is why Garfield implemented the Behavioral Instructional Leadership Team, introduced “calming centers” into classrooms and developed monthly parent workshops to teach parents stress-management strategies to use at home.

“If you really want a student to be successful,” explained Katie Larkin, Instructional Superintendent for Cluster I, “you have to invest their whole family in their education.”

She assigns much of the credit for Garfield’s success to Principal Kennard Branch, stating that he has “worked to make Garfield a place where kids learn and feel loved.” Garfield Prep stands out as an SEL pioneer in the district, but DCPS leadership champions the cause throughout its schools, determined to reach every single learner.

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