Continuous Improvement in Guilford County Schools: Organizing for the Journey Ahead

By: Jessica Bernstein, Lisa Brenner, Ally Skoog-Hoffman, Bloodine Barthelus

The last blog post in this series highlighted the CASEL continuous improvement framework and illustrated how it supports an iterative journey toward high quality systemic social and emotional learning (SEL) implementation. To contextualize what this looks like in practice, the next four blog entries will spotlight district voices from the field. This is the first of the four, featuring CASEL’s newest district partner, Guilford County Schools (GCS) – which serves the High Point and Greensboro communities of North Carolina. In this blog, we outline GCS’s thoughtful approach to how organizing this work paved the pathway for systemic SEL work.

A Continuous Improvement Approach from Day One

When GCS became a CASEL partner district in January 2019, the district was excited to embrace systemic SEL implementation efforts. Working in a district newer to SEL provided an opportunity to structure the work using continuous improvement as its foundation. As explored below, all conversations were anchored around the key continuous improvement questions aligned to CASEL’s district theory of action

In year one, the work focused on the “Organize” phase, understanding existing and prior efforts that could be leveraged in service of SEL, the creation of a shared vision, and thoughtful strategic planning.

Convening the SEL Leadership Team

As an initial priority, the newly hired Director of SEL & Character Education solicited leaders from across the district to help champion the SEL work. In joining the new SEL leadership team, more than 40 district leaders volunteered to steer this work, bringing perspectives from school administration to a wide array of district departments. Together, they aligned around ensuring SEL became a living part of the GCS experience and shaped the path from day one. This collaboration helped lay the foundation for truly systemic SEL implementation—communicating what SEL is, increasing awareness of the research findings about the benefits of SEL, and promoting SEL programs, approaches and practices in classrooms and schools.

Extending invitations to join the SEL leadership team opened a path for relationship-building with key partners, such as the office of research and evaluation. Too often, research & evaluation partners are brought into new districtwide initiatives towards the end of implementation, asked to analyze and reflect on “what worked” instead of helping plan initiatives with evaluation of influences and impacts in mind. In Guilford, the research & evaluation leadership expressed an appreciation for being involved from the beginning and helped to build an evaluation model alongside programming and implementation planning.

Eager to dive into the SEL journey, the SEL leadership team started to answer the first set of questions:

  • Where do we want to go given where we have been?
  • Where are we now?


Setting a Districtwide Vision for SEL

The SEL leadership team grappled with the question “where do we want to go?” through bold conversations about their hopes. This visioning, centered on the questions below, was grounded in the district’s existing mission, vision and values to ensure alignment.

  1. What skills and qualities would we want all students to possess before they leave our district? 
  2. What skills and qualities would we want the adults interacting with our students to demonstrate?
  3. What are the attributes we hope to see within the culture and climate of our district and our schools? 

Over the following months, the draft vision was refined into the now-adopted SEL vision for the district:

“Through social emotional learning, Guilford County Schools nurtures safe, supportive, and equitable learning spaces where adults feel confident, empowered, and responsible for helping students develop into productive and responsible citizens who thrive in college, career, and life.”

This vision was brought to life, time and time again through the strategic planning process, serving as the anchor in subsequent goal setting and a catalyst for systemic implementation efforts.


Once the team’s SEL vision was in place, they sought to answer the question, “where are we now?” by using CASEL’s Districtwide SEL Implementation Rubric to gauge the current level of systemic implementation. Additionally, it was important to also answer the question, “where have we been?”. While this is often done by conducting a district inventory of current and past programs, GCS had already engaged in CASEL’s SEL Readiness and Engagement Analysis (SELREA). The SELREA culminated in a report that provided context for the district’s needs and resources, and recommendations aligned to the CASEL theory of action for launching systemic SEL. In identifying priorities, the district reviewed the SELREA recommendations (below) again to add additional context to their working understanding of where they’ve been.

Illustrating the Priority-Setting Process

Engagement with the SEL leadership team brought together foundational learning on SEL, including CASEL’s district theory of action, as well as collaborative work to develop the model for SEL in GCS. The SEL leadership team completed the implementation rubric that helped establish the baseline for SEL efforts in the district. This rubric informs a team’s goalsetting and planning, so when the team asked, “where are we now” the stakeholders who could really speak to the district’s current efforts were already in the room, ready to collaborate.

The SEL leadership team was broken into four work groups, one per focus area, based on their expertise. Each person within the group selected rubric ratings independently, before coming together to discuss each element and determine a consensus rating. This proved to be a powerful dialogue as each person shared their unique perspective and background knowledge. Conversations in priority-setting included what SEL professional learning looked like; considerations for student supports included the MTSS representatives; deliberations about instruction from the teaching and learning department; the executive director of equity elevating equity-centered priorities; and the research and evaluation team helping the group better understand the districts’ long term goals and metrics.

The elements that the leadership team voted to prioritize, as depicted by the dot clusters below, all contribute to having a clear, strategic plan. The group agreed to start with a focus on organizing this work and ensuring adults felt confident and prepared to lead for SEL, connecting to the district’s vision statement.


With the leadership team’s rubric ratings and the SELREA recommendations in hand, the leadership for SEL landed on four initial priorities. The first two priorities – developing and executing both an aligned evaluation plan and a districtwide plan for systemic SEL – fall within focus area 1 of CASEL’s district theory of action, elevating two additional priorities in focus area 2 – strengthening central office expertise and designing and implementing an effective SEL professional learning program for school staff – demonstrates a realization of the SEL vision of ensuring adults were prepared and supported to lead this work. Collectively, prioritizing these elements in year one laid the groundwork for future implementation at scale and spoke to the recommendations from their SELREA report.

How will this plan be shared with the district community?

Communicating a plan for something like systemic SEL presents challenges. For those less involved in implementation, it can seem intangible or prolonged. To address this gap, the GCS SEL team developed a one-page graphic that illustrates the 3-year roadmap for the journey ahead. Broken down by academic year, the three-year roadmap is a helpful guide for tracking implementation targets and serves as a communications tool for framing the systemic effort. This roadmap also provided a jumping off point for collaborating with the research and evaluation department to build out a logic model that demonstrates how we will build this work (action steps or activities) and aligned outcome measures.


With a broader districtwide SEL plan in place, work began on making the initial priorities more tangible. Leveraging the process outlined in the CASEL Guide to Schoolwide SEL, we crafted draft SMARTIE goals for each of the priorities for the 2019-2020 school year, which effectively created a team workplan.

2019-2020 SEL Implementation SMARTIE Goals

  1. By June 2020, the SEL team will have developed an evaluation plan and acquired baseline understanding of school-level implementation practices and staff attitudes to inform future SEL priorities and decision-making.
  2. By June 2020, 100% of Cohort 1 schools will have a functional SEL team, meeting at least once a month with a strong representation of key stakeholders who help shape the school’s shared vision.
  3. By June 2020, amongst all of the GCS adults that have engaged in SEL professional development, 70% feel more confident and better equipped to engage in SEL practices.  

An Embedded Approach to Continuous Improvement

Alongside programming efforts, an evaluation plan was developed with the research and evaluation district partners, to ensure that all aspects of implementation were measurable.

In developing a cohort model for rolling out SEL coaching and implementation in schools, the SEL team collaborated with research & evaluation to identify a group of matched schools to serve as a comparison to SEL cohort schools. In having cohort and matched schools complete the CASEL staff implementation survey, the team is able to capture school level staff perceptions on SEL practices, attitudes and commitments. This approach enables us to speak to programmatic impact and provided a basis for the SEL coaches and school-based leadership to take data-driven action.

As the academic year unfolded, the SEL team kept this continuous improvement approach, taking time to reflect on progress, bringing data into team meetings for review, and adhering to their identified priorities, even as new initiatives and needs arose.

Now, 18 months into the journey, the SEL leadership team has participated in deep professional learning to further their own knowledge and capacity to lead for SEL, and, they’ve continued to bring their multifaceted perspectives to our continuous improvement work. The team has engaged in two additional rounds of rubric reflections, helping identify milestones to celebrate and where course corrections needed to be made. 

Now, the challenge remains to continue to uphold thoughtful strategic planning as we move forward. It can be tempting, as we pivot towards implementation, to follow the momentum yet sticking to this roadmap and precedent of strategic planning remains critical.

Questions for Readers to Consider

  • How have you seen districts continue to bring the best of foundational work and the organizational phase into implementation efforts?
  • What approaches would you suggest for effectively launching partnerships that bring in district research and evaluation as thought partners?
  • Despite working in a fast-moving context, strategic planning requires time for planning for purposes of programming and continuous improvement. What considerations or commitments need to be made to allow adequate time for strategic planning?

Lisa Brenner is Director of SEL in Guilford County Schools. Jessica Bernstein, Dr. Ally Skoog-Hoffman and Dr. Bloodine Barthelus – all from CASEL – make up the Guilford County Schools consulting team, focused on empowering systemic SEL implementation across the district.

Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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