A transformation is underway at Rio Tierra Junior High School* in the Twin Rivers Unified School District. Educators and students are working side-by-side in a university-based setting and focusing not just on improving academic outcomes, but also on building critical social emotional learning skills so all students thrive.
Each Rio Tierra student belongs to one of four universities on campus, with personalized acceptance letters sent to students during the summer. The university approach has the unanimous support of staff and it is central to the school’s seven-period day that allows time for professional development and collaboration among teachers and intervention time for students.
In the past, only about eight percent of Rio Tierra’s departing 8th graders were high school ready as measured by the CORE Districts’ high school readiness indicator. The indicator accounts for the percentage of 8th graders with: a GPA of 2.5 or better; no Ds or Fs in English language arts or math; attendance of 96 percent or better; and no suspensions.
Last year, a quarter of Rio Tierra’s students were suspended or expelled. The suspension rate among the school’s African American students was the highest, with 49 percent of African American students suspended or expelled.
“Our starting point came from our interactions with one another, based on our suspension rates from last year,” explained Principal Micah Simmons. “Most of our suspensions came from fights or derogatory language toward adults. That was an easy starting point to grasp and where we can begin to meet the needs of our students most.”
One specific social emotional learning strategy the school uses is called “Acting Right.” The approach empowers students to take ownership of and be responsible for their own behavior. The goal is for students and educators to always be in control of mind, body and voice.
“When I am working with a student in my office because they got put out of class, it is not that they cannot do the work or they do not want to …. something has gotten in the way,” said Simmons. “… being able to talk about that and having a common language really gives us both an opportunity to make a connection, to communicate and to contribute.”
Educators are receiving coaching and support regularly from Simmons and from the district, under the direction of Lori Grace, assistant superintendent of school leadership. Grace is working with teachers, site leaders and counselors to share the latest research from the CORE Districts, especially lessons learned in Oakland, one of the districts widely considered to be on the forefront nationally for social emotional learning.
At Rio Tierra, in addition to specific social emotional learning training, six additional teachers have been added to the staff, helping to lead the universities, provide professional development and support student interventions.
A dramatic drop in suspensions is underway. Month to month suspension rates are down, with 164 suspensions for willful defiance last year compared to 59 this year. Similarly, suspensions for bullying and use of bodily harm are down 78 to 27 and the incidents of actual fights are down 67 to 30.
“I am hearing from teachers that students have been able to come to class more level-headed because they have time to talk about issues they confront daily in the university,” Simmons reported.
Academics are improving as well. According to the district’s benchmark assessments, students are making steady progress. The percentage of students receiving either a D or F is decreasing, from 70 percent of students in 2016-17 to 49 percent at the half way point of the 2017-18 school year.
Next year, Rio Tierra will have some baseline social emotional learning data as well. Students soon will take social emotional learning surveys developed by the CORE Districts. These surveys assess students’ views of their own academic abilities (self-efficacy); ability to grow (growth mindset); ability to regulate emotions and behaviors (self- management); and understanding of others’ perspectives and ability to empathize (social awareness).
According to a recent report by Policy Analysis for Education (PACE), “CORE leaders have hypothesized that schools’ support for social emotional learning may play a particularly important role in improving academic achievement among African American, Latino and low-income students, thus presenting a potential route to reducing achievement gaps by race and socioeconomic status. …without measurement, educators may not know if their efforts to promote social emotional learning are effective.”
When asked why he thinks Rio Tierra is on the right track, Simmons shared a recent conversation he heard among students. “I didn’t have to do much coaching in that moment. One student said to the others ‘this is what we are learning in university, making the connection to how we are acting in the moment to what we have learned. That’s what teachers are trying to teach us so we can be better and we are not sent out of class.’”
*Rio Tierra Junior High School serves 506 students in grades 6-8. Eighty-eight percent of Rio Tierra’ students are socio-economically disadvantaged, 19 percent are English learners, 63 percent are Latino, 15 percent are African American, 7 percent are Asian and 5 percent are white.