As terms like ‘SEL’ draw fire, organizations supporting schools are sharpening their message

Nonprofits that have spent decades providing social-emotional learning and equity-based support to schools face a new challenge: defending their existence.

This year, educational terms such as SEL and equity have become embroiled in the controversy surrounding “critical race theory,” an academic framework that argues that racism is a social construct that has been embedded in legal systems and policies.

In some states, lawmakers have passed bills, rejected books and censored teachers in an effort to prevent discussion of “divisive issues” like racism and sexuality. In April, the Florida Department of Education rejected math textbooks because they included SEL-related content. Forty-two states have introduced bills or taken other action to restrict the teaching of critical race theory or limit how race and sexuality are discussed in the classroom, according to the Critical Theory Tracker. Education Week race.

The speech created a difficult situation for nonprofit organizations that put SEL and equity at the heart of the work they do in schools and school districts.

“This is the first time I’ve seen the division and polarization happening,” said Bridget Durkan Laird, CEO of Wings for Kids, an organization that works to improve SEL in schools by running trainings. after-school, teachers, and curricula in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Interest in SEL has always fluctuated, and organizations like Wings for Kids experience this roller coaster in real time, Durkan Laird said. Early in the pandemic, the nonprofit saw increased interest in its SEL programs as educators worried about the lack of mental health support for students during school closures.

Despite the negative rhetoric surrounding the term in some places, the organizations Education Week spoke to did not find themselves losing funding or opportunities. But they pay more attention to how they talk about the work they do.

Clarifying what “SEL” means

For a long time, Durkan Laird devoted much of his energy to explaining to people what SEL is. Now she’s tasked with convincing people what it isn’t.

“Some of the politicians or individuals who oppose it may not necessarily know the true definition of [social-emotional] skills,” said Durkan Laird.

Aware of the changing landscape, Durkan Laird said Wings for Kids has focused on broadening the definition of SEL when speaking to parents, lawmakers and others outside the world. education. The best way to do this, she said, is through what people in the field call her “five skills”: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationships and social awareness.

The SEL program asks teachers to work with students so they can master the skills and be better equipped to meet challenges in the future. Once she explained this, Durkan Laird said she rarely faced rejection.

“I find myself speaking in terms that are a bit more definable by a general audience,” she said. “Because I think if you say ‘social-emotional learning,’ it now becomes categorized in this whole bucket of controversy.”

Urban Teachers, a nonprofit that works to diversify the teaching staff in schools in Baltimore, Dallas, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia, has also seen success through clearer communications. The organization has tackled the decline of critical race theory and social-emotional learning by having “open lines of communication” with school leaders and the community, CEO Peter Shulman said.

“We work in education so we should be educators ourselves to make sure that when we talk to someone we are working to advance their knowledge and be honest about who we are and who we are not. “Shulman said. .

Double values

While the rhetoric surrounding critical race theory and SEL can sometimes be loud, it has not deterred educational organizations from being vocal about their work.

“If anything, we doubled our values, we doubled our program,” Shulman said.

Urban Teachers is not shy about its stance on race and racism in its posts. On its website, the organization writes “Structural racism and inequality have prevented generations of urban children from getting the education they deserve.”

Shulman said a commitment to staying true to the organization’s values ​​was a necessary part of navigating today’s cultural landscape. He’s not the only one to think so.

Naila Bolus, CEO of Jumpstart, a nonprofit that provides early childhood education programs in 15 states across the country, wrote in a letter on the organization’s website about the commitment of the organization to be anti-racist and inclusive after lawmakers in several states worked to ban books about race and sexuality from schools.

“After two years of a pandemic that has wreaked immeasurable havoc on young learners, it has never been more important to support children’s social-emotional development by empowering them to ask questions and think creatively and criticism to the world around them,” Bolus wrote.

Durkan Laird has also remained steadfast in her dedication to SEL, not hesitating to promote the educational method. She said she’s always sure to back up her claims with data that shows the impact of SEL on student outcomes.

“We all have to keep believing in what we’re doing and stick together and not back down,” she said.

Norma A. Roth