Last year, Reynolds Middle School went back to distance learning for several days due to behavioral issues. Now the school district has a new social emotional learning curriculum to help students cope with everyday challenges. The district has also hired social workers for each school building and has developed community partnerships for mental health services. We talk to Candice Vickers, executive director of student and family services at Reynolds School District, and Michelle Cardenas, program administrator for school culture and climate, about the work they are doing to support students.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last year at about this time, Reynolds Middle School went back to distance learning for several weeks. It wasn’t because of COVID, it was due to disruptive behavior and fights. Now the school district in East Portland has a new social emotional learning curriculum to help students cope with everyday challenges. They’ve also hired social workers in each school building, and have developed community partnerships for mental health services. Candice Vickers is the executive director of student and family services in the district. Michelle Cardenas is the program administrator for school culture and climate. They join us to talk about the work they are doing to support students. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Candice Vickers: Thanks Dave, excited to be here.
Miller: Candice first, I want to start with what happened last year at this time that I mentioned briefly, because it was really dramatic. What exactly led the district to return middle school to distance learning for two or three weeks last November?
Vickers: Well, Dave, student safety is always paramount in what we do in serving students. And working collaboratively with our union leadership and our district leadership, we knew that we needed to do a reset. Students have been used to comprehensive distance learning. It provided us an opportunity to do that reset, and to really make sure that we came back in a way that was supportive of the social emotional needs that were coming up for students as they reintegrated into that very social space, and also provided the staff with the support that they needed to be able to respond to student needs in a way that was really dynamic.
Miller: Michelle, what wasn’t safe? If, as we just heard, student safety is the most important concern, what was happening in the middle school that wasn’t safe?
Michelle Cardenas: What I would speak to is, last year, there were lots of reports done about how students were showing up post-pandemic, and a lot of the skills that they brought, which is a lot of the social skills that they gained being on distance learning. And then how that was then transformed and maladaptive - would be the word that we use - and how it was used when we come back into school space.
So let me expand on that a little bit more. When we came back from the pandemic last year into in-person learning, in the rush back to what was, [there were] oftentimes fights, power struggles with our educators was steamrolling over the months and months of isolation, and real impacts on the students and their individual families. And so what we needed to do was pause, and say “the last two and something years have been extremely traumatic for many of our students, particularly those who have lost family members, many of whose families were first responders and there during the very height of how the pandemic was impacting our community.” So this reset and this pause actually acknowledged the humanity and healing that needed to happen for many of our students. And that’s why the investments that you spoke on in the beginning of the segment, our district took to ensure that we are supporting the whole child. Because this rush back to “normal” - well first of all, what was normal prior to the pandemic? And then not acknowledging and pausing and healing from what happened was having adverse effects, being seen in the form of fights or disconnection from school.
Miller: I want to turn to the interventions in just a second. But sticking with last year, it seems that what was happening in the middle school may have been most severe, given that it was just a middle school that went back to distance learning. But how much of what you’ve just described was also present in elementary or high schools?
Cardenas: Not much. I would say that across the entire district, we did see an uptick in our students needing more supports around their behavior choices. It was also something that was reported upon across the entire nation, in saying how our students were coming back into these social spaces and navigating these social spaces in ways that promoted physical, emotional and psychological safety. In this particular middle school that we saw, we collaborated with all of our stakeholders to see what was absolutely necessary. And the close was to then create that space to plan to support our students with everything that they need to come back.
Miller: So let’s turn to those supports. As I mentioned, the district, using federal pandemic assistance money, was able to hire social workers in school buildings and institute a district-wide social emotional learning curriculum, among other things. Candice Vickers, what’s your definition of social emotional learning?
Vickers: Social emotional learning is really related to the standards that students need to be able to meet in order to be successful in life after school. We can go to the Comprehensive Academic Social Emotional Learning organization, or the Transformative Social Emotional Learning organization (and the state of Oregon right now is actually in the process of adopting social emotional standards):
The standards of social emotional learning are really about self awareness, self management, identity, belonging, collaborative problem solving, and responsible decision making. If we want to be successful in work or at school and post secondary, those are the skills that [we] will need to be able to navigate those social spaces. And those are often the skills that students are learning as they’re transitioning from that elementary to middle school age, in a way that’s really promoted by the peers that they have around them.
Miller: How much of what you’re describing has always been taught in one way or another, even if we didn’t use this term, “social emotional learning.” How much of this would have just been taught naturally by, say, a kindergarten teacher or a third grade teacher?
Vickers: Or a fourth or fifth grade teacher. We have some amazing teachers. I’ll call out Stephanie Messenbrink, the vice president of our Reynolds Education Association, who has been teaching those social emotional skills since she began her career. But when you’re teaching those social emotional skills, that’s not something that you can really do in a distance learning setting. It’s something that you have to learn as you engage in with your peers, in a social situation. And so that’s why we saw, I believe, a dip in those social emotional skills post-pandemic.
Usually parents see it on the report cards for elementary, like the ability to make friends, the ability to make good decisions, the ability to use safe hands on the playground. Those are things that students learn in those interactions with their teachers and their peers, that now both the state and feds recognize that we need to be really explicit about, because there are times when students aren’t able to be in the classroom to learn those, as the pandemic taught us.
Miller: Michelle, if I understand correctly, this is a district wide and all grade level effort. What might social emotional learning look like in the later years of high school?
Cardenas: That’s an excellent question, especially because social emotional learning, as Candice was explaining in her examples, used to be skills that you learned in elementary. But it doesn’t necessarily have to stop there. And so something that I’m really excited about is that our district is embarking on a social emotional learning curriculum process, where we’re talking to our stakeholders, like many of our families, our teachers, our students, our counselors, our social workers, to talk about what does K-12 social emotional learning look like. And especially with the emphasis on high school, because high school could take the form of agency and self advocacy. Our students came to us back from the pandemic, and I will always be a proponent that our kids already come with us with a ton of skills. And they came back righteous, knowing exactly what they want from themselves, and what is right, what is wrong, and that sense of justice. And so social emotional learning actually honors that sense of righteousness and justice that our students come to us with.
It also supports with a sense of purpose. The CASEL organization has some statistics that prove that social emotional learning, when embedded into high school curriculum, actually supports career and college readiness, because it allows a student to self-reflect on what their goals and purpose are.
Vickers: And I would add that those college and career readiness skills have been adopted by the state of Oregon for a very long time now, and they showed up as a part of those essential skills requirements. So as those essential skills requirements begin to fade, the conversation has to stay very prescient and in the moment, with regard to how are we helping our students transition out of high school with the skills that they’ll need to be successful when they get there? How do they ask their teachers for help? How do they have healthy relationships? How do they collaboratively solve problems when they’re in college or career spaces? These are the things that are really about being a self actualized human being that can navigate the world.
Miller: Michelle, you half addressed this, but I want to take this head on. I can imagine someone looking at the Reynolds district’s math and reading scores and saying this is a question of misplaced priorities. We don’t need to put a lot more emphasis right now, more money and effort, into social and emotional learning. We need to double down on the academic basics, on reading and writing and arithmetic. How would you respond?
Vickers: What I would say is our students are really going to struggle to get their needs met in a math class if they don’t know how to ask questions, and if they don’t feel a sense of belonging, and if they’re not able to engage with the agency and the responsible decision making that it takes to stay up on the homework and to maintain that progress. These are the skills that students need in order to engage with the content, before the content even sits in front of them.
Miller: So just to be clear, Michelle, you’d say there is a direct connection, you’d say, between these skills, social emotional learning, and academic performance?
Cardenas: There have been studies and white pages that have been done that comes out of CASEL that talk about how, proven across K-12, there’s an 11% increase in academic performance for students that embark on integrated social emotional learning. And so like what Candice was just speaking to, it’s the understanding that a student needs to feel a sense of safety, inclusion, and belonging within class, and have the skills to understand “this is how I ask a question,” “this is how I get my needs met in this particular setting,” to then be able to thrive and engage in the content, and take academic risks.
Miller: A year ago, when we talked about the middle school’s brief return to remote learning, we talked to two people from the Multnomah Education Service District, which provides support to some students in need, in your district and in others. What’s the division of labor right now, in terms of the work you’re doing in the Reynolds district itself, and the help you’re getting from, say, that education service district or other outside groups?
Cardenas: We’re doing a lot to support our families, and I am feeling very proud to be in this space to talk about how Reynolds is making those deep investments in school level supports in our community partners, and with partnerships like our MESD and other state and county level supports.
The first that I would speak to is by using state funding through our SIA funds, we were able to ensure that across our 16 schools, every school building has the support of a social worker. And in a few of our schools, that’s more than one social worker.
Miller: Is that different? Two years ago, three years ago, there wasn’t a social worker in every school?
Cardenas: Yeah. Once upon a time there was a social worker for the entire district. And it’s actually unprecedented to many of the other school districts within our locale. So there are neighboring school districts who still don’t have that amount of social work support. And especially we also added counselors, sometimes two counselors, to every single one of our buildings.
Vickers: And I would add Dave that having partners like MESD - because we have these school level supports with regard to social work and counseling - we now are much more primed and able to make sure that our students are connected with these amazing community partners in ways that are intentional, and that really capitalize on the specific supports that each of those partners provide. Those social workers are able to really dig down into the root cause of what’s going on for students and families, and make sure that whichever partnership that they’re engaged with is directly and wholly focused on that need.
Miller: How have you gotten buy-in from parents or other caregivers?
Cardenas: There is actually even more supports that help us with that. So the first and foremost is the relationship with our community partners. I will name that our community based organizations, like Latino Network, like SEI, like NAYA, are culturally specific community based organizations that allow us to reach out to our families. Since our staffing is very much like national staffing where our staff are predominantly white identifying folks, our community based organizations come in with the affinity spaces necessary to navigate and promote parent involvement and engagement. And then in addition to that, our social workers and counselors are provided culturally specific training and professional development.
We also have our other mental health community based organizations, like Northwest Family Services and Trillium Family Health Services, that provide that mental health piece, but are also deeply versed within the community and cultural competencies. And then on top of that, we also have an entire team of multi-tiered systems of support teachers on special assignment, in every single one of our buildings, that are supporting families, teachers, the social worker, the community based organization, to network around and create a village around a student. We are now creating these systems of support, with the whole village, supporting the whole child. So our family has become first and foremost in that conversation on how the school can partner to support their child. We can’t support their child if we don’t understand what the caregiver thinks is best for their child, because they are the expert of their child.
Vickers: And because of that Dave, as we’re embarking on the adoption of a social emotional curriculum, we’ve seen the highest [amount] of family interest and community engagement in that Social Emotional Curriculum Adoption Committee. We now have nearly two dozen family members who want to be in the room, and who want to help us identify the best curriculum that they want in front of their students to help them learn these skills that will help them navigate the world.
Miller: I want to turn to some worrisome numbers, though, from the state. According to recent data from the state, attendance is a huge issue. It dropped significantly statewide last year, but Reynolds was way below the state average. Regular attenders - and I think that means specifically people [that] don’t miss more than 10% of classes - last year made up only 40% of Reynolds High School students, 38% of middle school students, and 32% at Salish Ponds Elementary School. How do you both explain this?
Vickers: Coming back from distance learning was really hard for a lot of families. We had students coming in that didn’t have some of the basic skills that they would have had otherwise. We have a larger number of kinders who haven’t been potty trained, a larger number of second and third graders who struggle with making friends and being in rooms with that many people. You mentioned the middle school issues and at high school, students coming in and having to navigate all of those periods and all of that academic space all at once. So we did see a dip in our attendance. And as we will be reporting to the board on Wednesday about our attendance numbers, we are on track right now using those partners, with MESD and Every Day Matters, to get to pre-pandemic levels for our attendance by the end of this school year. But again, that’s because of this year’s really intentional focus on wrapping around the systems of support for students, and making sure that those school buildings are spaces where they feel welcome.
Another thing that I’ll say is as a plug, we need more educators, we need more educational assistants, we need more staff in the buildings that are consistent faces in front of our students. As everyone in the state has struggled with maintaining a consistent staffing level for their students, we see that attendance is directly correlated with that. If students can’t predict that they’ll see the same face and the same people every day, it makes it harder for them to come in and navigate those spaces. There’s multiple things that we’re doing at both the systems level, but also at the building level, to make sure that we’re wrapping around the systems of support, but also ensuring that each student has what they need to be successful.
And just to say it out loud Dave, we do recognize that Reynolds is a majority minority district, and that we have a significantly diverse student body that has been displaced into East County as a part of gentrification. So that is why we have been really intentional about the partners that we’re engaging with to help families navigate that new space. Many of these families are third and fourth generation inner North and Northeast Portland families who have never come this far out in the East County, and haven’t really navigated these more suburban spaces. So really making sure that we’re recognizing that culturally specific impact on attendance and engagement has been really important for us.
And again, engaging with those partners to make sure that we address that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that we need to make sure that we have lots of people in the room teaching our teachers and teaching us how to best serve those students who are newly showing up for us.
Cardenas: I would give two examples. The first is one of the reasons why us embarking on the Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee is really, really important. Because for our families, and for our students who feel disconnected to school, who feel like school isn’t for me, this is not where I’ve felt like I belonged, this is not where I feel like my identity is being celebrated and seen, social emotional learning actually allows the common language between K-12 students, staff, community members to increase that sense of self awareness, self management, social awareness, the relationship skills, that then allow our students to feel more included, celebrated and belonged within their schools.
And then the other example that I can give is, back when I was talking about the multi-tiered system of support teachers on special assignments, often the conversations that we need to talk about, like “hey, it looks like Marco is really struggling in his reading instruction, he’s not finishing his schoolwork, he’s not progressing on the same level of his peers.” And then the first thing that our teachers on special assignment look at is the comprehensive data for a student: their attendance, their behavior, the social emotional learning needs, and their academic needs. So while it may be that Marco is having struggles in his reading class, it is also because he’s only coming three out of the five days of the week. So we need to dive into that data a little bit deeper. So what our teachers on special assignments then do is ask questions of the family member. “Hey, we’ve noticed that Marco is coming to school only three out of the five days of the week. Could you talk to us a little bit more about that?” And then that’s how we unearth what Candice was speaking about, which is we don’t know what we don’t know.
And then by having that relationship and that support we figure out Marco has to take care of younger siblings that are not of school age one day out of the week. Then we can connect the family to a social worker that can provide some access to free and reduced childcare. Or we find out that Marco is having a hard time getting up because he’s up all night playing video games or something like that. And then we could work with the family to then figure out what are some supports to get Marco to school.
So all of these supports that we’re talking about today are being designed to support the whole child, attendance and academic success included.
Miller: I just want to turn briefly to money before we say goodbye, because so much of what you’re talking about, if I understand correctly, it is a direct result of federal pandemic relief money. Money that has an expiration date. You’re not going to have it for very much longer. But all the support you’re talking about, they seem like the kind of long term investments that you would need if this is actually really going to make a long term difference in young people’s lives. So what happens when this particular pot of money dries up?
Vickers: I am so happy that you brought that piece up Dave, because one thing I want to call out is the Oregon Department of Education’s Aligning for Student Success. We have six big buckets of funding right now, that are both state and federal, and ODE as recognized that we need to find a way to really align SIA, Measure 98, High School Success, Every Day Matters, etc. so that we can be thinking about this as one big bucket of how we support students, in that integrated way that Michelle was talking about, and move away from the small part of the bucket that’s supported by Every Day Matters, or by Measure 98, or by ESSER.
So because ODE has come together and really worked to integrate those funding streams, and to allow school districts like ours to talk about our planning in that aligned and integrated way, it kind of begins to buffer us against some of the immediate changes that can happen year to year with funding. Because we know that though ESSER might go away, we still have federal funding that will be coming in to support our students in other ways. And though Measure 98 may go away, we will still have something with regard to transition services and college and career readiness that’ll come behind it.
It’s never that everything all goes away at once and then there’s nothing, it’s always these different buckets that are coming in and out relative to initiatives, in order to support the whole student. And what has done now with their Aligning for Student Success has allowed us to look at all of those funds as one big cache of resources that we can pull from to support the whole student. Recognizing from Michelle’s example, that though our kiddo might be struggling with reading, it might be related to his attendance needs, and we don’t need to necessarily separate the funding structure for supporting that student between those academic and attendance needs. It really needs to be looked at in that integrated way.
And then the other thing that I’ll add is the Reynolds leadership has been really intentional about strategic planning in a way that looks at sustainability of these resources. So whenever we talk about adding social workers to our buildings, there’s been a real intentional conversation about how do we sustain this over 3 to 5 years in alignment with our student outcome goals. And when our students meet those goals, how might we need to shift or adjust or revamp those supports to make sure they’re staying wholly focused on the whole child, and the needs that pop up relative to our data then.
Miller: Candance and Michelle, thanks very much.
Vickers: Thank you.
Cardenas: Thanks for having us.
Miller: Candace Vickers is the executive director of student and family services at the Reynolds School District in East Portland. Michelle Cardenas is the program administrator for school culture and climate for the district.
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