Falice Moore is not the kind of girl who filters what she says.
Having just graduated from eighth grade, she’s worried about going to high school in August.
“I’m going to get run over by all those tall kids.”
She’s also worried about fighting.
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“It’s my mouth,” she admits.
Her mouth may be her strongest asset if she grows up to be a criminal defense lawyer, then a judge — her dream, she says, “for, like, 12 years.” For now, she’s got to get through high school.
Of the range of summer school offerings at Peoria Public Schools this year, one of the most select is meant for students like Falice. It’s designed to teach skills such as self-control, self-awareness, empathy and persistence, the cornerstones of social-emotional learning.
“If they get academics, it’s by accident,” jokes Sheila Stewart, the middle school guidance counselor who is site supervisor for the summer program at Peoria High School.
The program is called W.I.N.N.I.N.G., or What I Need Now for Ninth Grade. Whatever else it might be, it’s a laboratory for the school district’s ongoing efforts to embed social-emotional learning into the curriculum.
School officials describe the camp as a social-emotional learning camp. Open to just 35 students, most were on middle school principals’ initial list of 240 recommendations. Their parents were required to attend orientation sessions. Plans are for each student to have a mentor by July 19, when the camp ends.
Parents and mentors will also receive specialized training and services. For instance, the Children’s Home presented a program on trauma.
District officials plan to track the students through high school and beyond.
“Our goal is for 100 percent of these students to be on track to graduate by the end of their freshman year and for 100 percent to graduate,” says Derrick Booth, the district’s director of social and emotional learning.
PPS plans to meet its goal by teaching students how to meet theirs.
Setting, meeting goals
The camp began with doses of each high school’s history, personality tests, discussions on stress and how to deal with it by using techniques such as journaling and mindfulness. The second day of camp was devoted to goals.
Teacher Gail Johnson drilled goals home in a dozen different ways: the definition, how to set them, how to create an action plan to meet, then monitor, them.
Get organized, accomplish lots, she said, reminding them, “A goal is only a wish until you write it down.”
Johnson’s talk turned into an assignment. Students had to make posters of their life goals. They could write, they could draw, they could cut pictures from magazines, but they had to illustrate what they wanted from life.
Malaya Brown quietly drew a picture of a dog. “I want to work with animals,” she said.
Myson Wright flipped through magazines looking for pictures of a Camaro, his dream car.
Isaac Bushnell glued photos of a chicken dish and a car on paper because he wants to be a good cook and have a nice car, “and a nice little family too.”
Forensics a hot choice
Anything to do with forensics was a popular career choice. “I want to be a pathologist and move my mom and grandma out the ‘hood,” Nyerhee Moore wrote.
She knows the steps: high school, then college. “I don’t have to go college, but I want to,” she said. “People doubt me, but I know I’ve got to show them.”
By week two, the schedule was packed with field trips. Students visited Advanced Medical Transport. They’re scheduled to tour WMBD, Midwest Technical Institute, Peoria City Hall, and a variety of facilities, with an emphasis on trade unions.
“We want to expose them to as much as we can,” Booth says.
If she has to, Stewart says she’ll continue to teach social-emotional learning skills on bus rides to field trip sites.
Now that the students have their big goal on paper, Stewart, Johnson, and Martin Pio, another teacher, focus on the tricks of setting and reaching small goals, such as daily attendance, organization and controlling negative emotions.
“For me, the biggest social-emotional skill is self-awareness,” Stewart says. “If I don’t know about me, what makes me tick or what pulls my trigger, I can’t function in the world.”
Social-emotional learning, or SEL, as Stewart explains it, is not new. But its use is spreading as educators and, increasingly, national policymakers embrace the concept that a child’s emotional well-being is key to a student’s academic well-being.
In 2005, Illinois was the first state to incorporate social-emotional standards into overall learning standards. Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat made it a priority to expand and coordinate SEL programs at PPS when she took the leadership reins in 2015.
Chicago-based CASEL, or Collaborative for Academics, Social and Emotional Learning, monitors a growing body of research detailing less stress and conduct problems and better grades and more successful futures among students exposed to good high-quality SEL approaches.
Stewart, a counselor at Von Steuben Middle School during the school year, would have liked to open the camp to more students.
“But this is not a normal summer school,” she says. “We had to start somewhere and this is our first W.I.N.N.I.N.G. group.”