A Pre-School Solution for High School Dropouts

When Dale Erquiaga took over as President and CEO of Communities in Schools (CIS), the nonprofit was already one of the largest dropout-prevention programs in the nation. CIS had a network of teachers, agreements with school districts, and school-based staff to identify challenges that students face in class or at home. Community partners helped with immediate needs, like food and clothing, as well as more complex ones, like counseling and support.

But to build the kind of relationships with at-risk students that would truly empower them to stay in school and succeed in life, the program needed a Social and Emotional Learning component.

So Erquiaga turned to Sanford Harmony. This CASEL-SELect program employs a mix of strategies, stories, lessons and activities to foster respect, kindness and empathy in children, and decrease aggressive behavior. Students build communication skills and learn to regulate emotions as they connect, collaborate and problem solve.

Sanford Harmony is based out of San Diego’s National University System, a nonprofit network of universities and educational programs. Through the vision and support of entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, the program is available at no cost to schools and other educational groups.

“From a very young age, many of these kids have barriers to learning, conflicts at home, an incarcerated parent, low self-esteem – and we used to ignore it at school,” says Erquiaga. “But SEL is the gateway to higher-order cognitive skills. It’s the secret sauce that impacts academics. It’s not a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have, and the best time to start is when kids are really young.”

Mainstream demand for SEL is growing. According to Erquiaga, 93% of teachers want a greater focus on SEL, and 92% of employers agree that SEL skills, especially problem solving and communication, are more important than technical skills. The CIS/Sanford Harmony partnership is paying off, too: 99% of students are staying in school, 88% are meeting academic improvement goals, and 93% of seniors are graduating.

Integrated, Yet Flexible

“Sanford Harmony is glad to share these powerful, effective resources with teachers, programs – whoever wants to benefit – for free,” says Aaron Macias, Program Manager of Sanford Harmony. “Our tools are designed to help teachers help students build SEL competencies, starting from Pre-K, in an integrated program because that’s the most effective approach.”

Easy adoption is another hallmark. Most classrooms have little free time in the course of a school day, so Sanford Harmony is as flexible as teachers need to integrate into their schedule. There’s also activities just for teachers’ benefit, so they better understand and appreciate the tools before giving them out to students.

“In my younger days, I didn’t reach out for help, so I understand some reluctance to spend time building SEL competencies,” says Macias. “But the stats are convincing: 80.4% increased school attendance, 89.5% decreased behavior problems and 93.4% increased academic performance. Just as important, it enables kids to have better relationships. As adults, it will help their marriage, school, work, friendships, neighbors.”

Quick Connection Cards

As a 5-minute example, Macias dealt out playing cards to his audience with questions like, “What is your favorite meal and who makes it?” and “If you could spend the day with anybody, who would it be? What would you do?”

Adults might view the cards as simple-but-effective icebreakers. But in the classroom, they serve to break down barriers, get students talking, and create feelings of safety and inclusion.

“When you know someone, you are more likely to empathize and bond. With empathy and bonding, there’s less chance of bullying,” says Macias. “The cards also help teachers gauge where their students are at emotionally, what’s going on with them outside the classroom, what are the little things that could become big things, if not dealt with appropriately.”

Online Learning Portal

Want to give SEL a try? Sanford Harmony recently launched an online portal, easy to navigate and 100% free. Teachers can “get their feet wet” with songs, games, activities, lessons – each one already proven via the 19,000 classrooms, after-school programs, YMCAs, and Boys and Girls Clubs where the Sanford Harmony approach is currently deployed.

System Change

By combining forces and resources, Erquiaga and Macias hope their gains can inspire others to facilitate a change management of our educational system.

“If everyone’s goal is for our students to become productive citizens who make substantial contributions to their communities, then successful SEL in schools is everyone’s business,” says Erquiaga. “At one point, we have to send our children out into the world. What kind of people will they be?”

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