Social, Emotional Learning Improves Warren Schools

WARREN, Ohio – Five years ago, the Warren City School District issued 211 out-of-school suspensions to pupils in kindergarten and grades one through three.

Last year, that number was 62.

Through the first semester of this academic year, the number is just 14.

At the center of this change is the introduction of social and emotional learning, or SEL, programs to these young people through the district’s Skills for Life initiative, officials say.

“We are confident that it’s replacing some of the skills that our students didn’t have coming into the classroom, so that they are able to be problem solvers,” said Superintendent Steve Chiaro.

This leads to more time in the classroom as evidenced by the substantial reduction in suspensions issued over this period, he said. “The more time a child spends in a classroom working, the better the results will be. If a student is removed from class 20 or 30 times during a school year, that student has missed a lot of learning.”

More important, the program allows students to develop the skills they need to focus on work in the classroom and exercise the self-discipline to remain on task when they become frustrated or overwhelmed, Chiaro said. “It’s building the skills that our kids need to remain on task toward learning.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, spearheaded an effort five years ago to integrate social and emotional learning programs into public schools in the Mahoning Valley. On Thursday, the congressmen joined educators, administrators and students at Jefferson Elementary on Tod Avenue to assess the program.

“It’s unbelievable,” Ryan reflected. “The program is sticking. It’s working. It gets to fundamental issues of what a kid needs to learn.”

To Ryan it’s evident that these pupils are much better at handling conflict and governing their own emotions through practices such as meditation and breathing exercises.

“This is the new common core,” Ryan said. “If we’re not taking care of the kids’ social and emotional needs, and the teachers’ social and emotional needs, we’re never going to get to the academic piece.”

Jill Merolla, the district’s SEL director, said the district has implemented what is called the “Four R’s” curriculum, that is, reading, writing, respect and resolution. “It teaches social skills through the lens of literature.”

The curriculum is based on several units that remain the same from kindergarten to fifth grade, Merolla said, such as active listening, managing emotions and solving problems. “They do some applied learning,” she said, practicing the different social skills that are in each unit.”

Another component is the Inner Resilience curriculum, a program where students learn to center themselves and to quiet their minds, sometimes within a group or individually, Merolla said. “We have set up in each room a peace corner, a place in the room where students go to self-regulate. They’re not sent there. They self-select to go there,” she said.

The program is made available to students from kindergarten through fifth grade in Warren, although teachers throughout the system are trained in SEL, Chiaro noted. There’s also been some work adapted for ninth graders at Warren G. Harding High School, he said, and he’s looking to expand that program.

“In our middle grades, we’re also going to put in some stronger curriculum pieces to work with our kids, so that we can begin to see some of the same outcomes that are in place in our primary grades,” Chiaro said. “This can be community-changing.”

Elsewhere across the congressman’s district, social and emotional learning programs haven’t yielded the same success as in Warren, but those prospects are improving. Ryan said a similar SEL program introduced in Youngstown City Schools failed to develop fully, for example, but the MindUp program — a social and emotional learning initiative through the Hawn Foundation — has found a place in the Youngstown Community School.

“That’s a great model for the district. Youngstown is getting a foothold there and that’s something we can really build on,” he added.

The most recent major study of social and emotional learning programs showed an 11% increase in test scores among the 300,000 students exposed to this curriculum, Ryan said. “They had a 10% increase in pro-social behavior, or good behavior, and a 10% decrease in anti-social behavior,” he said. “Together, that’s a 20% swing.”

The results in Warren also provide tangible evidence that these programs work, Ryan said. “We’re going to build this out,” he stated. “This is becoming a model, not only in Ohio but around the country.”

Lynne Hurdle-Price, a facilitator for the program, said they help the student learn how to remain calm and focused, providing a better opportunity to learn and excel academically.

Teachers are also trained in the program, she said, and often students are the ones finding resolutions in the classroom with the help of their peers. “I’m excited about the results,” Hurdle-Price said, “but not surprised.”

Pictured: Steve Chiaro, superintendent of Warren City Schools, is joined at the press event by Jefferson Elementary School students Amaria Bercheni and Randy Long.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.