A Deeper Look at the Partnerships for Social Emotional Learning Initiative

The Wallace Foundation’s Partnerships for Social Emotional Learning Initiative (PSELI) is a comprehensive, multiyear initiative exploring whether and how children can benefit from intentional partnerships between schools and out-of-school time programs focused on building social and emotional skills – and what it takes to do the work. Research has found these competencies promote success in school, career, and life.

Early in 2021, the Wallace Foundation conducted a podcast series to share findings and early lessons from a RAND Corporation study of the PSELI initiative. The series featured in-depth conversations with practitioners in schools and afterschool programs, and leaders in districts and out-of-school time intermediary organizations, about their experiences working together to help children develop social and emotional skills.

To continue this rich conversation, Forum Co-founder and Senior Fellow Karen Pittman spoke with representatives from four of the communities featured in the podcast – Dallas, Denver, Palm Beach County and Tulsa. These district and out-of-school-time leaders shared what they have learned about partnering across school and out-of-school time settings and how all adults can be engaged in supporting young people’s social and emotional learning and development.

A recording of the full conversation is available here.

Please note the questions and answers have been edited slightly from the original conversation to improve readability.

First Panel Discussion: Tulsa and Dallas

Karen Pittman, Co-founder and Senior Fellow, The Forum for Youth Investment

When we talk about partnerships, we’re talking about partners who couldn’t be more different: schools and out-of-school intermediaries. What made connecting these two very different systems hard? How much was it that they were different, how much was it that they were distant, that they were at arm’s length of each other in their work? Was there any kind of residual distrust from trying to partner over the years that made these partnerships hard? We’re going to dig into what made them hard, but we’re also going to recognize that ultimately these partnerships were successful. They built trusting relationships, they figured out how to share leadership, they co-owned professional development, and they really moved these ideas across and out into the communities. That’s what they were able to do.

When you started PSELI, did you estimate how hard it was going to be to get these two systems to work together? We’ve got Dallas, where there was already a strong working relationship, and we’ve got Tulsa, where the intermediary was just getting started. So, let’s start with Tulsa. Did you all have any idea how hard it was going to be to build this?

Stephanie Andrews, Interim Executive Director of Student and Family Support Services, Tulsa Public Schools

No, I actually was super naïve, coming from a site level where we had what was called an aftercare program that we thought worked really well. I had no idea about this perceived, and not just perceived but actual, power differential between the school system and the out-of-school time, and how there had been many opportunities and people trying really hard to be a part of our school system, and really it was just not working. Honestly, I can say that I was naïve and thought, “Oh my gosh, this is going to be awesome. We get more people. It’s going to be great. We’re not going to have any problems.”

Caroline Shaw, Executive Director, The Opportunity Project, Tulsa

Yes, absolutely. I didn’t have quite the historical context that you had, Stephanie, but I do think you’re absolutely right. There was not only a power imbalance but also a differential between the way the two groups of staff members and professionals were viewed. I think there was really a lack of confidence on our OST provider side that we wanted to work on right away.

Aligning around a shared vision and even the language used is really critical. Stephanie and I have had this conversation many times about having to transition from thinking about “students” to “youth and young people.” That’s something that we did intentionally in our first conversations in our first group.

Aligning around a shared vision was something that took time. We really needed to establish trust between adults who were at the table and develop those relationships on the adult side before we could ever tackle the big problems. We are very fortunate that we’ve come so far in these few years, and just at the right time, because no one could’ve predicted that we needed to be ready more than ever at the start of COVID. This partnership really served as a launching pad for us to be able to react quickly and then institute some real proactive ways for us to continue working together in the future.

Karen Pittman

Caroline, what is an intermediary and why do you all call yourselves the Opportunity Project?

Caroline Shaw

We went back and forth trying to find a name for the Opportunity Project. We are a relatively young intermediary that started in 2017 at the outset of the PSELI work. We have gone through so many permutations of our elevator speech, and eventually arrived at what our deputy superintendent coined as the quarterback of out-of-school time. We try to think about how are we organizing things, how are we helping call plays, and then how are we looking to the rest of the team, the rest of the network, all of our partners to really make good on those plays, to be the ones who catch the pass and actually score the points.

We are here to support the entire youth-serving ecosystem in Tulsa. We want to make sure that we are doing things that clear the path for those organizations, big and small, who are out there on the front lines every day, implementing programming, working with young people, building trust with families. So, we want to do things like take away concerns about data systems, about enrollment, about marketing, about other things that take time and energy away from organizations that could be better served in service of young people.

That’s really our day-to-day work. Thinking about how to refer to this new thing as an intermediary, we had lots of considerations, not the least of which was, as a new organization coming into a community that had a relatively large youth-serving community, we wanted to be sure that we were not seen as coming in as cannibals, coming in as somebody who was going to tell everybody, “You’ve been doing this work for 20 years but now we’re here to tell you how you really should be doing it,” or “you all have been here for three decades in some cases and now we’re here to siphon off funding that otherwise would go to you.”

We did a lot of work and had a lot of conversation around how we wanted our name to reflect that and how we also wanted to show that we didn’t think this was a one-and-done kind of thing. Even though PSELI was a discreet initiative, we really felt like this work in Tulsa was something that would be ongoing and everybody needs to be involved in it. It takes continuous effort and practice, and work, and partnership, and that’s really how we arrived at the name.

Karen Pittman

Greg, you’ve been at this for more than a decade. You also have an interesting name for your intermediary. You have been through many initiatives and experiences. What does it mean concretely to play this role in a community of knitting together all these different community partners and what have you learned out of that?

Greg MacPherson, Chief Big Thought Institute Officer, Big Thought Dallas

Big Thought is a 30-plus year old organization. We are an intermediary, but we’re also unique in that we also have direct-to-youth programming. We sit in a space where we’re at times an intermediary and then other we are also direct practitioners of the work. We have to be very specific internally and with our partners about which hat we’re wearing at which time.

We’ve done work as an intermediary that has been focused on arts learning, that shows up in collaboration with the school district during the school day, connecting our cultural and humanities communities to our elementary school students to provide opportunities. That led to opportunities to collaborate around summer learning.

We serve as an intermediary for a citywide summer learning system called Dallas City of Learning, that is looking to provide rich summer experiences, whether it’s in a school setting, in a library, rec center, community based organization, you name it. That role for us is intermediary. I love the analogy of quarterback. It’s about creating the conditions for collaboration and exchange.

We talk about creating the conditions for learning, and I think it’s very similar in terms of being an intermediary. It’s creating the conditions where you can have those positive interactions, you can establish mutual goals, you can collaborate, share ideas. What are the root causes of our challenges? What are the similarities? What are the assets and how do we leverage those?

A lot of our work is digging in to see what is possible, and that’s only done through partnership We’ve been very lucky to have a very longstanding partner in the Dallas Independent School District to walk alongside in this work.

Karen Pittman

Juany, what did it mean to have this partner? This intermediary word is really important because Big Thought has done an incredible job of trying to bring all of those diverse players that Greg just mentioned together and bring them language, consistency, and support, and then sit down with staff at the school district and say, “Okay, how do we really get this done at scale? How do we do this?” Juany, as you’re thinking about your work, what did it mean to have an experienced partner like Big Thought?

Juany Valdespino-Gaytan, Executive Director for Social Emotional Learning, Dallas Independent School District

It was helpful to have that history with Big Thought, to be able to go to Big Thought as a thought partner and to learn together, as opportunities came about for us to learn more about social and emotional learning. We were going through this together, while Big Thought already had lots of background experience. Lots of their programming already included SEL. They were already practitioners of this work, but they were also learning with us about how to do this together and consistently at schools.

I think having that relationship was really helpful to us early on, so we could be transparent about what we knew or what we didn’t know and also just be open as we developed a plan for implementation. It was helpful to have a trusting partner that we could learn this work and learn this practice with.

Karen Pittman

Can you each provide a concrete example of where you had a challenge when you had to think about how to really develop professional development or how to think about resources? Even with the best intentions, where do we need to understand we’re going to find challenges having these two systems work together?

Stephanie Andrews

The one that comes to mind was that it’s taken us three years to be able to have the Opportunity Project be the host of professional development for our school leaders. As district leaders we plan huge professional development opportunities for back to school and school leaders. It took three years until Caroline said, “No, we can do it. We want to host it from our Zoom.” And I responded that “Oh, it’s so difficult even to have it from your Zoom to us, right?” One of the challenges, again, is just building that trust between the school district and the intermediary. Caroline and I have built trust between our teams, but it does take time. That’s one of the things I would tell everyone is don’t give up. I’ve been super excited about social and emotional learning for over 20 years, and it took us that many years to even have that in Tulsa Public Schools.

Caroline Shaw

Absolutely. That was a huge victory, and I think we can continue to celebrate that. One of the things that comes to mind for me right away is logistics: professional development, training, even meetings. The schedules for in-school folks – educators, classroom teachers, administrators – and schedules for OST are directly opposed. That was the first issue that we had to deal with – how are we going to do this. How are we going to work together and learn together when our schedules are completely opposite? We came up with some really good ways to not only incentivize folks to join even if their working hours were in the evening, to come to training in the morning, or have training on a Saturday. We did that so we could learn together and be at the table together and continue to build that trust. What felt like a stumbling block at the beginning became an opportunity for us to free people up from the way that they had thought for a really long time about rigid schedules and inflexible ways of being able to partner and meet, and take all of that out of the way and get people back at the same table.

Greg MacPherson

What comes to mind to me is consistency of language and of practice and that need for time. It felt like we were often on the same page as we were making decisions in conversations and meetings about this is how we want to talk about this, this is how we want to frame it, this is how the practice should look. It’s then having patience with each other and with our colleagues that it takes time and repetition to actually walk that consistently at all of the levels in which the work is happening. Not getting frustrated or derailed the first time that the old terminology gets used in a setting and saying okay, let’s take a step back, let’s remind, make sure we’re all still on the same page and let’s keep moving forward. It’s having that consistent look at alignment and providing time for that to actually infuse into our behavior because the mindset’s there. It’s behavior change that we all have to give ourselves time to incorporate.

Juany Valdespino-Gaytan

That makes me think about just even the title of SEL coordinator, where we originally started with an SEL coordinator on the district side, and then one that’s funded on the Big Thought side, and both of these people are working with the school, and the confusion that that caused. At times it was funny because the school didn’t even realize which one of these is the district employee, which one of these coordinators is the Big Thought employee. It helped us to change the title to differentiate the specialist from the coordinator, but it was also nice that the campus didn’t know who was the Big Thought employee and who was the district employee because they worked so well with this SEL specialist.

Second Panel Discussion: Palm Beach County and Denver

Karen Pittman

Before we talk about coordinating between the school and the out-of-school time space, what did you have to do to broaden the idea of who should be involved in the school? Was it just the teachers who were getting the support? Who else in the schools were you engaging in this idea of creating socially and emotionally rich schools and what did it take to get them involved?

Kristen Rulison, SEL Manager, Palm Beach County Public Schools

One of our big aha’s when we started this project from a district perspective was how often our professional development was only for instructional staff. When we decided to start with adult SEL, we realized that we needed to engage every single adult in the building, from bus drivers, to front office staff, to cafeteria workers, custodians, because at the end of the day, every single adult on campus can have a very important role in a youth’s life. They might not even realize it, and we don’t know who is going to be the first point of contact for a child when they enter an elementary school or middle or high school, and how they’re greeted can make or break the day for that child. We realized that we needed to start with all adults. We tried to do different types of adult SEL PDs, as much as we could before school even started during our in-service week.

The other neat thing about doing that is we didn’t realize how many of the adults on the school staff, even within the school day setting, might see each other and wave to each other, but they don’t really know each other. By bringing everyone together we saw that we grew deeper relationships, and at our facility schools we saw a stronger climate in these schools, and people were happier to go to work. They felt safe and connected.

Karen Pittman

Please be very specific about who some of those adults are, because I remember one of the things that was on your podcast that was so powerful was just talking about how this was so important for the cafeteria staff. When we say those other adults, who are we talking about?

Kristin Rulison

Absolutely. We had cafeteria staff, front office staff, paraprofessionals. We did adult SEL PD for bus drivers and custodians. Pretty much every single adult staff on campus. We also encouraged them to, if the custodian is walking into a classroom during morning meeting, invite them to come be part of the morning meeting and sit in that circle so that the kids get to know them as well.

Karen Pittman

Kim. How did this work out for you all in Denver?

Kim Price, SEAL Manager, Denver Public Schools

We used the language “all humans”; that was really important for us in the work as we started on our journey. Similar to Kristin, it was really about knowing that young people form relationships with everyone within the building, as do adults. The front office staff tends to be the first people that you see as kids and parents walk in. Kids are interested in what the facility managers are doing and they have off-the-cuff conversations. The bus drivers are the first to greet many of our students as they’re coming to school. For us it was really around all humans in the building, and that was the language that we used in Denver.

Karen Pittman

What difference did that make for those humans who were being acknowledged as part of young people’s learning and development? Did it make a difference to them to have this intentionality that their relationships could matter?

Kim Price

One of our intentional shifts was we used the term educators instead of teachers, and that way we could really universalize educators as all humans having the opportunity to educate and connect with our students. We elevated this intentional language around all the people in the buildings and not having teachers, or paras, or cafeteria workers, but referring to everyone as educators. It takes that community approach. By elevating our language, that empowered folks to form those relationships and elevate those relationships, and those relationships really matter.

Karen Pittman

Miranda, did that language help as you all were thinking on the out-of-school time side? Did that shift in language help this be more of a continuum of adults who were in different settings working with young people?

Miranda Cook, SEAL Manager/DAA Learn Lead, Denver Afterschool Alliance

For sure. It was a shift for people and hard to make that, but for people, especially in the OST space, to see themselves as educators was important. Moving away from this being childcare or babysitting and treating everyone as professionals who are educating young people and having a huge impact on their lives. It was a huge shift in the mindset. It made a really important shift in the power dynamic that often exists between school and afterschool folks.

We tried to build communities. We also shifted language to say this isn’t school day and now afterschool, but we’re a community. This is our community. It’s not about which space you’re in or where you go if you’re the bus driver. We’re a community, and where do we want our community to be?

Karen Pittman

Katherine, Prime Time has been doing this for 20 plus years. You all have been so intentional about this idea of professionalizing the field. What did it mean to have the schools be willing to make these kinds of language shifts and recognize the continuum of adults and the continuum of settings where learning and development can happen? How did this accelerate your work?

Katherine Gopie, Director of Professional Development, Prime Time Palm Beach County, Inc.

Using SEL as the springboard to create that common language across in-school time and out-of-school time so that afterschool practitioners, teachers, and school leaders are speaking the same language was really instrumental.

In addition to that, this project allowed us to think outside of the school building, how we leverage partnerships outside, such as the Birth to 22 initiative in Palm Beach County. We got the word out about SEL and the importance of integrating practices across all programs and all offerings that young people take part in or are involved in. We helped educate the adults in those settings as well around the importance of social and emotional learning and how embody it. We can’t teach what we don’t practice, and we have learned that this is absolutely an inside-out approach.