SPUSD | Board gets SEL Update, Seeks Program Monitoring Data

The City's school system is taking a more serious look into new methods that focus on the mental health of students in South Pasadena

PHOTO: Bill Glazier | SouthPasadenan.com News | South Pasadena Unified School District Headquarters

Efforts to integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies in South Pasadena public schools are expanding, and school board members are interested in how the effects are being tracked.

During an April 9 board meeting, Christiane Gervais, assistant superintendent of instructional services and Dennis Lefevre, executive director of student support services, gave the board a detailed review of the range of SEL programs being offered at the District’s high, middle and elementary schools. They also took questions on how the program’s efficacy is monitored.

In the last five years, over a dozen SEL-related positions have been added, including an occupational therapist, a psychologist, a child welfare specialist, intervention counselors, mindfulness coaches and others. The update did not include cost data.

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Lefevre said programs that have already made a big difference the past few years include Kindness Week, buddy benches, girls groups and the new “empathy group” introduced at the middle school. Gervais said a group of Monterey Hills Elementary teachers recently participated in a “restorative justice” training dealing with “unintended cultural bias” that went so well there will be an administrators’ training where a larger roll-out will be discussed.

Lefevre told the South Pasadenan News that about 80 percent of students are exposed only to the “universal” SEL prevention programs. The rest move on to secondary or tiertiary interventions before any referral for special education support, where an individual education program may be arranged.

The District’s SEL program, based on a national curriculum focused on self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making, is delivered under two rubrics, each with no fewer than a dozen topics. The parental forum includes the ABC’s of behavior, keys to behavioral change and transgender issues; staff forum topics include conflict resolution, working with AD/HD students, and risk prevention. Both include suicide prevention and viewing and discussing the film “Angst.”

Gervais said there are four summits each year for counselors. These have previously focused on “defining and aligning” the services provided among the five campuses, while this year and last both targeted record keeping and other management processes for administration of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which mandates that disabled students not be excluded from federally funded programs. She said there’s been positive feedback from the hundreds of Section 504 and student study team meetings that take place annually. “The goal is to make the process more efficient.”

The District’s SEL program includes a set of elementary school counselors–rare in California schools–as well as an intervention counselor at both the middle and high schools serving at-risk students, also rare for a district of SPUSD’s size, Gervais added.

SEL programs at the elementary schools include a “second step character education program” that addresses empathy, emotion management, learning skills and problem solving. These take place in tandem with mindfulness efforts, which use SPEF-funded coaches. These will take place in 15 classrooms at each elementary school this year and in 18 classrooms next year. Each consists of 16 lessons including self-awareness and mindfulness with respect to listening, breathing, seeing, walking and eating.

Mindfulness can, for example, help a student identify where feelings of anger or frustration are coming from, Gervais said. Other SEL elementary school programs include positive behavior intervention and support, which includes things like positive rewards and accolades.

The seven SEL programs at the middle school include the Train Your Brain (TYB) program, suicide prevention and SOAR: Set goals, Organize, Ask questions and Reflect.

TYB and suicide prevention components are also at the high school, along with a mediator program for conflict resolution and “developmental assets,” which utilize 40 “research-based, positive experiences and qualities” that serve as discussion topics.

Digital citizenship is provided at all schools, with various grade-appropriate components such as internet safety, information literacy, cyberbullying, privacy, “digital footprint,” healthy media choices, digital friendships, reputation, social media activism and the power of words.

Considering how many activities are at play in SEL, board members Michele Kipke and Jon Primuth wanted to know what metrics are used to monitor them. “How will you know in the end how you are doing?” Kipke asked.

Gervais and Lefevre said the District uses parent and counselor feedback, absenteeism rates and data gathered from state’s anonymous Healthy Kids Survey to monitor SEL results. Gervais also cited the state’s Local Control and Accountability Plan, a survey of “local educational agencies” to find out what programs and services are being used to address school climate and other needs. “Many of the metrics” that led to the decision to expand SEL in the first place came from the LCAP, she noted.

Lefevre said the “narrow band metrics” in the Healthy Kids Survey vary so much “it is hard to know if that information is sensitive to what we are trying to measure.” He hasn’t seen “any meaningful trends from that data” and some have proven ”inconsistent” with anecdotal information the district has acquired. In practice, monitoring “comes down to practice and clinical judgment,” he said.

Nationally, the efficacy of SEL programs has been the topic of considerable research. A 2011 study recorded an “11 percentile-point” gain in achievement. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has a link focusing on SEL research.


Ben Tansey
Ben Tansey is a journalist and author. He grew up in the South Bay and is a graduate of Evergreen State College. He worked in Washington State as a reporter in a rural timber community and for many years as an editor for a Western electric energy policy publication based in Seattle.