Students at Jason Lee Middle School in Tacoma, Wash.. (Dean Koepfler/Aspen Institute and Tacoma Public Schools)
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It’s no secret that many people involved in education — teachers and administrators, parents, policymakers or employers — are looking for ways that schools can better help children develop as people and productive citizens in the American democratic experiment. The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development has been exploring ways to accomplish this for about a year.

In this post, Karen Pittman, a member of the commission, explains how two schools in Tacoma, Wash., are blending social and emotional learning with academic lessons, with the help of community partners. Pittman is the president and chief executive of the Forum for Youth Investment, a national nonprofit group that helps leaders get young people ready for life.

By Karen Pittman                                           

In education, we hear a lot about educating the “whole child,” and how the “whole community” needs to be part of these efforts during the “whole day.” To some people, these may sound like buzzwords. But they’re not just words in Tacoma, Wash., where I recently spent a day visiting a local middle and high school with the Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, of which I am a member. We talked with and listened to students, teachers, administrators and community partners.  I left impressed, inspired and encouraged by the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative.

My first visit was to a high school completely integrated into the landscape of Point Defiance Park as a part of the district’s deepening partnership with Metro Parks.


Karen Pittman (Forum for Youth Investment)

Students have classes at the pier or in the woods, manage ongoing research projects throughout the park and train to be docents at the zoo.  They also introduce visiting preschoolers to science and nature and explore science in state-of-the-art classrooms and labs in a new building co-used by the high school (called the Science and Math Institute, SAMi) and the zoo staff. And they work alongside a team of highly motivated teachers and administrators who actively manage the partnerships that allow students to work with park conservationists, environmental scientists, zoologists and working fishermen.

The learning setting was breathtaking — so much so that I wondered why we visited a school that could not be replicated even within Tacoma, let alone in other communities. I urged my tour guide, a sophomore girl with an interest in engineering and a passion for robotics, to tell me what made this school special beyond the setting. She didn’t miss a beat. The real differences to her were the structure and the staff.

  • Students are trusted: They move freely between buildings across the park following individually designed schedules.
  • Known: Incoming freshmen join a multi-grade advisory group of about 20 students who meet weekly with their sponsor and stay together throughout high school.
  • Supported: They can schedule time to talk with any teacher about any topic, personal or academic.
  • Challenged: Encouraged to find their passion and then pushed to explore it and master it.
  • Accepted: By their peers and the staff, for who they are.
  • Held accountable: But forgiven when they make mistakes.

I asked her if she’d heard the term “social and emotional learning.” She hadn’t, but she told me that, without a doubt, her experience at this school had improved her ability to manage her time, empathize, be creative, solve problems, work in teams, lead teams, be accountable, be confident and be self-aware. She’d had the opportunity to take a summer course on a college campus. She was surprised at how well prepared she was, not just academically, but emotionally and socially.

I left impressed, but still skeptical, to be transported to our next destination, Jason Lee Middle School. Traditional red brick building. Working-class neighborhood. Unlike the high school, whose students were drawn equally from all parts of the city, this school drew from the surrounding neighborhoods and was predominantly attended by students of color. I was prepared for a letdown. I left absolutely inspired.

My first stop was an 8th-grade class completing a writing assignment. About 15 students of color were at desks in a semicircle, with a white teacher standing at the front. The teacher, somewhat formally, asked if anyone wanted to read aloud from their essays. I felt for the students, given the number of strangers now in the room. To my surprise, six students volunteered. The surprise continued.

The students were commenting on a provocative essay, “Taming the Beast: Race, Discourse, and Identity in a Middle School Classroom,” that suggests that teachers’ conceptualizations of students’ racial identities can hinder students’ participation in the classroom, especially in language arts in which students should tap into both their abilities and their life experiences.

The volunteers stood to read one at a time. Each read with confidence and spoke without hesitation. Impressive. It was what they said, however, that inspired.

Each linked a specific point made in the article to their or their peers’ experience and offered an analysis. One suggested that a teacher who had asked her to limit her sharing in exchange for candy needed more training and more knowledge of students’ lives. Another reflected on the behavior of a teacher who challenged or dismissed her comments in such a biased and blatant way that the white students commented. One reinforced her points by referencing a second article, earning an appreciative comment from the teacher.

The teacher listened attentively. She’d clearly read earlier drafts of these essays. Once the students were done, she pointed to the screen behind her and read what I assumed was the state standard for 12th-grade essay comprehension and analysis. This strategy shows students what they’ll need to master to graduate ready for college. She asked how many thought they only partially met the standard: A few hands. Fully met: Most hands. Exceeded. A few hands (accompanied by self-assured smiles). She reminded them to save their work and dismissed them, telling them to let their next teachers know that they had permission to be late from her. They thanked her and left.

I wished we had been there to hear the group’s initial discussion of the article. But let’s not minimize what we saw: With no apparent tension, students tackled tough topics weaving their lived experiences into part of what seemed to be a routine language arts assignment. Commissioners witnessed the high-quality learning that happens when students simultaneously build their academic, social, and emotional skills.

We then went to the library, where a group of 6th- through 8th-graders greeted us and answered questions. They talked candidly about the fact that this school had been a “bad school” a few years earlier when their older siblings or cousins attended. Some acknowledged that their parents had tried to get them into a different school. All were glad they were there.

The students took turns explaining what accounted for the transformation. They described the things they take responsibility for, as students, to ensure that all students feel welcomed and respected, including being a part of rulemaking and enforcement. They described with pride the skills they are building to ensure that they are prepared for college — skills that help them manage conflict, manage their time, and even manage their notebooks. Skills that some acknowledged are helping them manage their lives outside of school. They talked about the range of activities they participate in, during and after school, that help them use their heads, bodies, and hearts. Activities that are offered by school staff and community partners.

We ended by spending time with the administrators of the two schools we had visited. They kicked off with an acknowledgment of the challenge they know they face as predominantly white administrators and a predominantly white teaching staff serving a student body that is only 40 percent white. Their candor was encouraging. One of the administrators used the term “distributive leadership” to describe their approach to not only engaging teachers, parents, community organizations, and students, but empowering them to be an intentional part of the solution. All agreed that this leadership approach, which is what makes Tacoma Public Schools special, is only possible because it was modeled first by the district leaders who fiercely defend the value of giving building administrators the flexibility they need to lead.

I left this day of visits impressed and inspired but, more than anything, encouraged. Not every problem has been solved. The after-school programs at the middle school, for example, don’t quite cover the whole day. They end at 5 p.m., which creates a challenge for working parents, and not every student has an after-school plan for every day. But there is a network of community organizations that are joining forces to partner with the schools and one another to fill these voids with high-quality programs.

The Tacoma Public Schools and their partners are innovating their way toward success. It shows in their data, in their dreams, and in powerful commitments to serve every child, every day.