Carstarphen: How Our Commitment to Supporting the Whole Child in Our Schools Is Making a Huge Difference for Atlanta’s Students

I’ve never been one for new year’s resolutions. Too often, they don’t stick, are unrealistic, and fall by the wayside. In fact, according to one source, 80 percent of new year’s resolutions fail by February.

But what if we focused on real solutions instead of resolutions? What if we aimed to adopt new and improved habits that are achievable and sustainable over time, with a long-lasting impact on our success and well-being — and that of our young people?

When I joined Atlanta Public Schools in 2014, my team and I set out to make these types of realistic, powerful improvements in the district. We began with a mission to provide a caring, collaborative, and trusting culture that enables every student to graduate ready for college or careers. To do this, we knew we had to support not only our students’ academic success but also each young person’s well-being.

This approach was backed by a multitude of research showing that students learn best when we teach them as whole people, with social and emotional as well as academic needs. A new report from the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (which I’m pleased to be a part of) shows that an array of skills and traits — perseverance, empathy, respect, self-mastery, creativity, collaboration — lay the groundwork for academic excellence and success in life. Research also tells us that this type of learning is especially beneficial to vulnerable children. In short, this approach is exactly what APS needed.

However, as we know from new year’s resolutions, shifting practices and mindsets in this way requires systemic change and a lot of hard work — and adopting a whole-child approach in schools is no different. That’s why we started by ensuring our board understood our approach and would allocate resources to support it. At the same time, we brought the research to school and district leadership and shared our vision. We also prioritized transparent communication with staff throughout the district about integrating social, emotional, and academic learning for our students.

With this foundation, we implemented systemwide changes to bring our vision to life. We created a Social and Emotional Learning Department to oversee training for teachers, school resource officers, counselors, and others to gain the skills and strategies to support students on social and emotional levels. We redesigned our discipline code with the social and emotional needs of our students in mind, ensuring that they have the chance to learn from their behavior and re-enter the classroom. Importantly, we leveraged partnerships with community organizations to build out the wraparound supports we offer students and families, including school-based health clinics, free eye exams, and mental health services.

Since embarking on our efforts to support our students as whole learners, we’ve seen some remarkable progress. Student discipline rates have decreased, employee engagement has increased, annual state test scores are showing gains in proficient and above levels, and our four-year cohort graduation rates increased from 59 percent in 2014 to 79.9 percent in 2018. We are equally proud that we’ve seen a 34 percent decrease in student arrests over the past two years. We believe that our focus on social and emotional well-being, as well as academic growth, has contributed to this positive progress.

We’re proud of these improved practices and the progress we’ve seen, and we’re glad that we’re not the only ones making these shifts. In fact, there is a growing national movement to integrate social, emotional, and academic learning in schools and communities across the country. This movement is spurred by widespread demand among young people, parents, teachers, school and district leaders, and business and community leaders for an approach to education that equips students with an integrated set of skills they need to succeed.

The national commission I sit on recently released recommendations that can help more schools and communities meet this demand and continue to grow this movement. These recommendations clearly articulate the need to explicitly teach and embed social and emotional skills into academic content, build adult capacity to do this work, and align resources to support whole-child development. In APS, these recommendations reinforce our work to further integrate social and emotional learning into our academic curriculum. We’ve also just begun refining our hiring practices, ensuring that all staff are expected to model these important skill sets and use the resources we provide to develop in areas that need support. Finally, we’re ensuring that we distribute resources to our schools with a focus on equity, access, and the whole child — every child.

With real solutions underway, I feel hopeful about the year ahead. I’m hopeful that our efforts in APS will continue to drive our progress. I’m hopeful that the national movement around teaching our children as whole learners will continue to grow. And I’m hopeful that an integrated, holistic approach to education will help our young people in APS and beyond build better futures and a better nation.

Meria Carstarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, has nearly 20 years of experience in educational leadership, primarily in urban school districts. She serves as a commissioner and member of the Council of Distinguished Educators on the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

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