Continuous Improvement of SEL Implementation in Denver: Bringing In-School and Out-Of-School Educators Together to Reflect and Learn

By: Duncan C. Meyers, Miranda Cook, and Kim Price

Systemic SEL implementation is a multi-year process that requires planning, committing to carrying those plans out with quality, shifting and problem solving when plans hit snags, and reflecting on what was achieved to inform the path ahead. 

Last week’s blog post focused on how Minneapolis Public Schools stakeholders collaborated on their journey within the “implement” stage of systemic SEL implementation. Denver is the focus of this blog post that highlights a practical example of the “improve” stage of CASEL’s continuous improvement continuous improvement model, where time is carved out at the end of each academic year to reflect on the questions, “what are we learning about our implementation efforts?” and “are we moving in the right direction for our staff and students?”

Figure 1. CASEL’s “Improve” Stage of Continuous Improvement

Here we examine how the members of the Denver Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning team (SEAL) – a collaborative effort by Denver Afterschool Alliance and Denver Public Schools – along with members of their consulting team which includes CASEL, convened teams of in-school and out-of-school time (OST) educators as a professional learning community (PLC). Once convened as a PLC, educators reflected on implementation and outcome data, made sense of those data collectively, and adjusted plans for the coming year based on what they learned. This helped them answer the questions “Are we moving in the right direction?”, and “What are we learning on our journey?”

The Journey of the SEAL Team

Before getting to the data reflection PLC, though, some background on how they got there is needed. The Denver SEAL team has been an in-school and OST collaboration since day one. The team is jointly led by managers in Denver Afterschool Alliance and Denver Public Schools, and incudes SEAL coaches and a data analyst. Together, they have been collaboratively planning, implementing, and monitoring SEL that is integrated throughout the school day and OST. Including data and evaluation staff on the team is important for continuous improvement since these team members can help with organizing and presenting data throughout the team’s journey, and they may also have a unique perspective on the role data can play in planning, monitoring implementation, and reflecting on outcome data.

Denver is one of six communities chosen to participate in the Wallace Foundation’s Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative (PSELI), and each of these communities are taking on the challenge of aligning SEL across the school day and OST. When Denver joined PSELI they decided to focus on six elementary sites that were committed to ensuring that all youth and the adults who interact with them build essential SEL skills. Each of these sites would also have a SEAL coach who would work with them. These coaches focus on capacity building through professional learning, ongoing coaching based on site and individual needs, and problem solving implementation challenges.

Continuous improvement is a substantial part of the support the SEAL team provides to each site they work with. Early on in their participation in the PSELI initiative, the SEAL team and multiple departments within Denver Public Schools developed a walkthrough protocol that is designed to be used during the school day and OST. The tool can be used by educators to make systematic observations of SEL, equity and culturally responsive best practices across the building, within classrooms, and during OST programming. Non-evaluative learning walks are conducted throughout the year to provide formative data that can be used to get a sense of strengths, areas for growth, and inform coaching supports.

Promoting Improvement with a Data Reflection PLC

Throughout the year, the SEAL team facilitates PLC sessions that bring together the six sites that are integrating SEL across the school day and OST. The PLC that is the focus of this post spotlights an annual data reflection and learning process.

Each site’s SEL team gathered to dive into their data. Members of these teams included principals and assistant principals, OST directors, parent engagement staff, teachers, and OST instructors. The data they had available to reflect on included reports that were developed by the external evaluator for the PSELI initiative, a data dashboard that all sites had access to, and locally-collected data such as the walkthrough results and results from a whole child survey. The SEAL team also distributed “SEL swag” (e.g., light-up pens, mood pencils) to everyone and site teams proudly displayed some site-specific SEL swag, such as t-shirts that they had made to demonstrate pride in their site.

The day kicked off with a welcoming activity that got participants in the mindset of asking questions and seeking answers. Each site team was given a Magic 8-Ball (remember these?) to ask questions and get answers. This was a fun way to get the group asking questions, and a couple shared out what they asked of the Magic 8-Ball. At that point, a data dashboard was pulled up that each of the sites can access. Facilitators gave an overview to the whole group of what was on the dashboard, how to access results such as charts and graphs, and the group began to generate questions that they’d like to investigate by exploring the dashboard. In this way, participants’ curiosity drove the guided tour of the dashboard, and the questions they were asking influenced what was explored as a group.

Next, participants experienced a virtual “data carousel”. The carousel consisted of 6 different stations, and each station had a theme (e.g., walkthrough data, staff perceptions of climate, goals and objectives from the previous school year), and site teams rotated to each of the stations to look at a one-page report of data from their school. Each station was managed by a SEAL team member who had reviewed the data extensively, and this team member facilitated conversation and was able to provide clarification or consultation when questions arose. These one pagers were developed by the SEAL team for this event, and it was a way to give a quick snapshot of the data and allow for questions and conversations.

After a social lunch break, site teams “rolled up their sleeves” for 90 minutes and reflected on all their data. The carousel activity that preceded got participants ready to explore the complete set of data as a team. They had seen the short one-pagers to get oriented, and moved into exploring the data in its entirety to create measurable action steps that would build on the strengths highlighted in the data, and address areas for growth. Each site team worked with a SEAL team member (e.g., managers, coaches) or a CASEL coach, who also helped them relate what they were learning from the data to their SEL implementation plan. For example, teams considered whether anything they had learned that day might warrant any adjustments to next year’s plan. In this way, teams were reflecting on the question “are we moving in the righ direction”, and in some cases made adjustments to their goals based on an area of growth that was highlighted in their data.

Once the session was over, each site had developed measurable action steps that were informed by data and conversations to make meaning out of those data. Each site also had the benefit of a SEAL coach, who would help them plan for and achieve these action steps in the new school year. During the upcoming PLC that was on the their calendar, time would be devoted to checking in on those action steps to keep the process moving further. By continuing to monitor implementation throughout the new school year, site teams were continuing to answer the questions “are we moving in the right direction?” and “what are we learning on our journey?”

The experience that the Denver SEAL team created embodies the need to establish a sense of trust and safety to explore data. Relationships had been strengthened over the multi-year journey, and there was now a general sense that this PLC was a safe place to discuss what was going well and what needed attention. Districts that are ready to start planning for the “improve” phase of continuous improvement should consider:

  1. How can you integrate data reflection into existing end of year meetings, professional learning, and other structures? It’s a process that takes a lot of time and making it part of what teams are doing throughout the year enables you to build up to a summative, end of year data reflection experience.
  2. School systems and sites are often inundated with data, and PLCs can be leveraged to provide educators with time and space to be reflective and inform future plans for strategic planning. How can you provide a space for sites to process and synthesize multiple sets of data alongside existing implementation plans?
  3. How can you ensure data reflection is inclusive and in partnership across day and afterschool? How could you create plans that are inclusive of both to support communities holistically?

Next week, CASEL Assistant Director of Continuous Improvement, Dr. Duncan Meyers, Washoe County School District (WCSD) Chief Accountability Officer Ben Hayes, and WCSD Director of Research and Evaluation Laura Davidson will share Washoe’s journey through the entire continuous imrovement cycle. They will describe how continuous improvement work in WCSD cycles through the “Organize”, “Implement”, and “Improve” stages by describing their continuous improvement system that has been refined over multiple years.

Editor’s Note: Denver has partnered with CASEL since 2017, and this partnership was made possible through the Wallace Foundation’s Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative (PSELI).

Duncan C. Meyers (dmeyers@casel.org) is the Assistant Director of Continuous Improvement at CASEL, Miranda Cook (miranda.cook@denvergov.org) is the SEAL Initiative Manager at Denver Afterschool Alliance, and Kim Price (kim_price@dpsk12.org) is the SEAL Initiative Manager at Denver Public Schools

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