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Harlem school striving through educational equity through SEL

Two years ago, school leaders at PS/MS 206 Jose Celso Barbosa, an upper elementary and middle school in East Harlem, New York, took a hard look at their school’s data. They discovered that even though there were nearly twice as many Latinx students enrolled as there were Black, their Black students--particularly male--were two to three times more likely to be suspended. 

School leaders realized that they needed to closely examine their building culture and teaching & learning practices for evidence of educational equity.

learn, unlearn, advocate.PNG

The first process in working for educational equity is to learn, which involves listening, observation, immersion, reflection, and data analysis. 

PS/MS 206 heavily utilized their ANet coaches, Broderick Boxley and Colleen O’Brien, during this particular process. Boxley and O’Brien helped school leaders to use classroom walkthroughs as an opportunity to identify evidence of strong instructional practices and classroom culture that leads to equity. This support has been “eye-opening and helpful,” says one teacher.

Broderick Boxley, ANet coach

Broderick Boxley, ANet coach

Colleen O’Brien, ANet coach

Colleen O’Brien, ANet coach

PS/MS 206 has now begun to shift to unlearning, which involves dismantling old practices and beliefs. Under the direction of Dr. Alexandra Estrella, former superintendent for Community School District Four in East Harlem, and Camille Forbes, school principal, their school’s Equity Team successfully worked toward the goal of having 100% of pedagogical staff participate in at least four professional learning sessions on equity. ANet’s approach to and resources for text-first planning has also enabled teachers to see the relationship between access to grade-level texts and educational equity.

In addition to the equity series, which was led by Dr. Edward Fergus, author of Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity: A Leader's Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds, PS/MS 206 has begun to bake equity directly into all planning processes and conversations. One of their key strategies here has been the use of a “menu” of equity-based discussion questions. Used at the start of professional development meetings, common planning time, data discussions, etc, these questions ask teachers and school leaders to take a closer look at themselves to determine whether they are practicing equitable education practices. 

  • What is the purpose of school?

  • What experiences have I had that contribute to the way I respond to behavior?

  • How are we addressing different cultures in our curriculum?

  • What biases do we bring?

  • How do you teach your students to advocate for themselves?

  • How have you created a space for students to talk about culture?

Discussion questions like these allow staff to model vulnerability, address their own experiences and biases that impact them as educators, and come to planning conversations with student-centered mindsets that allow them to better address educational inequity and the role it plays in their building.

The Equity Team also set goals around decreasing suspension rates for Black students and decreasing schoolwide referrals. In working to achieve these goals, they knew that adult conversations alone wouldn’t have the direct, immediate impact on students they were looking for.

School leaders realized they needed to take a more direct approach to social-emotional learning.


Recognizing the negative impact that educational inequity can have on students, Dr. Estrella and Ms. Forbes pushed for an expedited implementation of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER protocol.

RULER, a systemic approach to SEL, stands for “Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing, Regulating” and is geared at giving students the tools they need to better recognize emotions in themselves and others, communicate more effectively about those emotions, and ultimately learn to better manage them. Evidence shows that the RULER program leads to positive shifts in school climate, enhanced academic performance, better quality relationships, and less bullying and aggressive behavior.

Anecdotally, students seemed to really gravitate toward RULER and, in particular, the Mood Meters associated with the program. The Mood Meters allow students to “plot” themselves on a chart of emotions so they can better understand and articulate how they are feeling. The Mood Meters give students increased visibility into how other people are feeling. This helps to build their capacity for empathy and allows them to adjust their behavior accordingly before interactions with peers who may be struggling to regulate their own emotions.

Melissa Russo is a 5th grade dual language and special educator who specializes in working with students with Autism in co-taught, inclusive classrooms. Russo says that RULER has improved emotional resilience in her students:

“It feels like it’s starting to take hold in students that just because I’m mad now doesn’t mean all day is ruined.” - Melissa Russo, 5th grade teacher

Russo has also played an integral role in the SEL and equity work at PS/MS 206--she is a member of the school’s RULER, Equity and SEL teams as well as a peer collaborator (a position that works to foster collaboration between staff). Russo has worked closely with school principal Camille Forbes and Brianna Feldman, SEL Team Leader, on these teams.

Camille Forbes, principal

Camille Forbes, principal

Brianna Feldman, 5th grade teacher and SEL Team Leader

Brianna Feldman, 5th grade teacher and SEL Team Leader

Melissa Russo, 5th grade teacher and member of SEL, Equity and Ruler teams

Melissa Russo, 5th grade teacher and member of SEL, Equity and Ruler teams

Due to COVID-19, PS/MS 206 was ultimately unable to track the impact of their equity and SEL work against the school’s goals for decreasing suspensions and referrals in 19/20. They did notice a slight downward trend in those numbers prior to the pandemic though, which they believe to be attributed to their equity work and the RULER protocol.

Even with all that is on their plate with teaching in the era of COVID-19, PS/MS 206 is working hard to keep equity and SEL at the forefront of their school’s vision and planning processes this school year.

On top of their continued conversations and professional development on educational equity, the school is also in the planning process to begin implementing Teaching Tolerance’s Social Justice Standards at their school.

Last year, students participated in an SEL class three times a week--this year it will be daily. During that time, they will work to improve emotional intelligence by learning to label, understand, and monitor their own and others’ feelings and emotions in order to guide thinking and actions. In light of plans for virtual instruction for the time being, staff have worked to adapt their SEL tools like their Mood Meters for online instruction.

Melissa Russo’s Google classroom during their daily SEL period

Two years in, the leadership team at PS/MS 206 Jose Celso Barbosa realizes that there is still much to be done in this SEL and equity work. Reflecting on the three processes required for working for educational equity, they’ve spent the past two years involved in learning and unlearning, and are now eager to see the impact that advocating will have on the lives of their students.

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