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Case study: Combining social emotional learning and rigorous academics to support the whole child

This case study is part of a series that highlights the ways schools are implementing standards-based, grade-level expectations alongside an approach to personalized learning. At first, the two approaches may seem incompatible, especially for students who are behind: how can a personalized model that “meets students where they’re at” also ask them to engage with content that may be multiple years above their current level? We hope that these case studies will show how the two approaches need not be at odds. Although complex, integrating these two approaches can drive better outcomes for students across a range of domains. 

About Compass Academy

Compass Academy is a charter school in Denver Public Schools in Colorado, serving approximately 300 students in grades 6-8.  Compass Academy was founded on a vision of creating a safe learning environment for students using a social emotional learning model.

The 2019-20 school year is Compass’ 5th year as a school and their 2nd year as an ANet partner.

Two approaches

  1. Social emotional learning (SEL)

  2. Standards-aligned, grade-level instruction (ANet)

Prior to the 2018-19 school year, Compass primarily focused on implementing their SEL model with many features of personalized learning. Their comprehensive approach to SEL includes a variety of strategies, including:

  • “PACK” time—PACK time is a class each morning that focuses on SEL lessons and culture building. Teachers use this time to build healthy habits, culture, and flag any signs that a student may be struggling in school or at home. 

  • Early Warning Indicator (EWI) meetings—teachers and leaders identify students that need additional support.

  • “Induction camp”- induction camp is a week-long program in the summer led by Culture Within Curriculum. The first two days of the camp focus on training for Compass staff around SEL strategies to incorporate into their classrooms and individualize support for students. 

Leaders at Compass intentionally prioritized SEL to create a solid foundation of trust that would facilitate student learning. Compass leaders began building their capacity around standards-aligned instruction while prioritizing SEL. And now that they have a strong SEL model in place, Compass has made key shifts to their instructional practices to ensure students have access to rigorous instruction as well as SEL resources and supports. 

This case study highlights the ways in which Compass is maintaining a strong SEL foundation alongside rigorous, standards-aligned instruction, and how the foundation of SEL allows students to go deeper in their academic courses because of the trust they’ve built with adults in their building.

Three steps to start the year right

1. Set the tone for the year.

The week-long induction camp prior to the school year is critical for student and teacher success throughout the year. The induction camp sets the stage for how teachers will engage with students, and vice versa, to create the most effective and positive learning environment for all students. 

Two main goals for the week focus on preparing for the school year by 1) practicing SEL-focused skills, and 2) learning about student needs (e.g. how they learn, who they work well with, what challenges they may have).

The “challenge process” is a key focus of learning for teachers throughout the week. The challenge process centers on learning about each student by observing their interactions when faced with a “challenge” and how teachers can use this knowledge to better support their learning. This is the same process that will help students productively struggle in their academic classes, and will prepare teachers to plan and address misconceptions. 

At the core of Compass’ model is integrating SEL work into every aspect of the school day. The key question that drives the SEL model can also be applied to core academics: “how do we share what teachers are learning about individual students so that it can inform how teachers interact with, support, and differentiate instruction?”

While the content of both approaches is very different, there are many overlapping themes in teaching strategies including: persevere through challenges, ask questions, use your resources, teachers plan for misconceptions, be ready to adjust on the fly, pause often to reinforce ideas, etc. This is a tangible way to apply SEL strategies to rigorous core academics. 

The two approaches not only overlap, but also support one another. As students receive the SEL support they need, they are more ready to engage in grade-level content throughout the day. Students and faculty have trusting relationships, which allow students to feel more supported, spend more time in class, and ultimately have more access to rigorous, grade-level material. 

2. Build leader and teacher capacity.

When you get to Compass and it’s your first time here, it feels like you are taking on the world because we’re expecting high academic achievement and social emotional support.
— Compass school leader

New teachers that come to Compass are typically an expert either in 1) a content area or 2) social emotional learning. Teachers are rarely an expert in both, yet they are expected to do both at a high level in their classrooms. For this reason, high-quality and comprehensive professional development is crucial for teachers’ and students’ success at Compass. 

As mentioned above, teachers engaged in a week long “induction camp,” which provides a social emotional learning knowledge base for teachers to draw from throughout the year. Compass leaders also have weekly one-on-one coaching sessions for teachers to address gaps in content knowledge or standards-aligned instruction, and delivers ongoing professional development on standards and curriculum internalization. Compass leaders learned the curricula inside and out so they could effectively support their teachers.

These efforts are paying off. Increased teacher retention at Compass over the past 2 years has contributed to building teacher expertise across multiple years. 

3. Shift structures and practices to support rigorous instruction.

Compass built an amazing foundation of SEL from which students could safely learn, as is evidenced by internal indicators such as student surveys (shared below in the “Getting Results” section). However, the focus on SEL was such that they did not build an equally strong foundation to support rigorous instruction. Compass leaders knew both SEL and rigorous instruction were crucial to supporting and teaching the “whole child”. 

Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, ANet supported the Compass leadership team to make key changes to their instructional practices. These changes included: adopting and implementing high-quality curriculum in ELA and math, implementing strong planning practices, using coaching to support classroom instruction, and adjusting the school schedule to allow for more time in ELA and math classes. 

Each of these shifts was paramount to delivering grade-level, standards-aligned instruction in a way that built upon Compass’s personalized approach to SEL for students. Adopting and implementing high-quality curricula was one of the biggest shifts the Compass team made. Compass not only adopted and implemented high-quality curriculum, they also adopted strong planning practices that made the curriculum more accessible for teachers. 

Getting Results

After the 2018-19 school year, Compass grew two levels on Colorado’s 1-year school performance framework (from turnaround to improvement).

Compass analyzes their student satisfaction survey data each year. From the 2017-18 to the 2018-19 school year, questions pertaining to student learning made the biggest improvements overall. Questions with the largest increase include:

The following screenshots highlight Compass’ Median Growth Percentiles (MGP) in ELA and math from the 2017-18 school year to the 2018-19 school year. The school has seen huge growth across grade levels and subgroups. Specifically, in math:

  • Overall math MGP is approaching Meets Expectations

  • SPED MGP grew by 32 points

  • ELL MGP grew by 15 points

  • 6th grade MGP grew by over 32 points (included in below screenshot)

Highlights in ELA include:

  • Compass was green on all growth indicators except 6th grade

  • SPED MGP grew by over 28 points

  • ELL MGP grew by 12 points

  • 8th grade MGP approaching Exceeds Expectations


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