Continuous Improvement of SEL Implementation in the Washoe County School District: Deeply Embedding Continuous Improvement Into District Systems and Structures

By: Duncan Meyers, Ben Hayes, and Laura Davidson

The four most-recent posts on this blog have highlighted how districts that partner with CASEL engage in continuous improvement (CI) cycles. These posts were written by CASEL consultants and their district partners to provide practical examples that relate to CASEL’s overall approach to CI (see Figure 1), and the essential questions that drive it:

  • “Where do we want to go?” “Where are we now, and where have we been?”
  • “How do we get from where we are not to where we want to be?”
  • “Are we moving in the right direction?” “What are we learning on our journey?”
Figure 1. CASEL Continuous Improvement Cycle

Those essential questions align with the three stages of the CI cycle, which are “organize”, “implement”, and “improve”. To date, this blog has shared practical examples of all of these individual stages. For example, last week’s post highlighted the great work going on in Denver related to the “Improve” stage.

This week the focus is on the Washoe County School District (WCSD), which is one of eight large urban school districts who participated in the Collaborating Districts’ Initiative (CDI) starting in 2012. WCSD is located in Nevada’s second largest city, and over the years the district has been implementing comprehensive SEL practices at all grade levels. They’ve also been fine-tuning a system for CI that addresses all stages of CASEL’s CI cycle in a sophisticated manner. This blog post describes aspects of WCSD’s ongoing CI cycle and highlights practical examples from their work that move through the “organize”, “implement”, and “improve” stages.

Organizing for Continuous Improvement in WCSD

The organize stage of CI includes the important task of strategic planning for systemic SEL and answering the first guiding question, ‘Where do we want to go?’ In WCSD, their strategic plan provides answers to that question. The current strategic plan includes clearly stated goals and objectives, metrics for how success will be measured, and annual targets that define the level of success the district is striving toward. In this way, WCSD hopes to ensure they never stop improving and never stop challenging themselves and their students to achieve all they possibly can.

As an example, the strategic plan includes goals and objectives related to promoting and continuously improving a climate of belonging and self-worth amongst students, families, staff, and the community. To track progress and outcomes on this goal, the strategic plan specifies that a student and staff climate data will be collected each year. The annual climate survey assesses engagement with school, positive relationships with the school community, perceptions of safety at school, and social and emotional health. The survey allows the district and schools to celebrate strengths, monitor changes over time, and respond to areas of challenge.

In addition to climate, WCSD measures student social and emotional skills. Supporting students’ social and emotional growth alongside their academic growth is a high priority for WCSD, and student social and emotional skills are measured in a variety of formal and informal ways. An example of a more formal assessment of student social and emotional skills is by having all students in grades 5th -9th and 11th complete a subset of items on the student version of the annual climate survey related to student social and emotional competence. This student SEL survey was developed by WCSD in partnership with CASEL and the University of Illinois, Chicago in 2013, with support from a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to develop a valid and reliable measure of students’ social and emotional competencies, and to study how they impact student academic and behavioral outcomes. The measure can be downloaded from WCSD’s website, is free to use, and includes both a short and long format.

An additional effort WCSD makes to plan for continuous improvement is to use disaggregated data. WCSD has specific plans to investigate any disproportionalities that are observed in their data so they can act and reduce them. For example, they have ongoing plans to investigate disproportionalities that exist for different groups of students regarding suspensions. They also look into data for different subgroups of students, such as those participating in Gifted and Talented Education, English Learner identification, Special Education identification/programming, and extracurricular participation.

These examples provide a glimpse into a high-quality strategic plan that integrates how success will be evaluated. Without this type of evaluation planning, CI would be a challenge. Another way the plan contributes to CI is that WCSD updates it annually to build upon past successes and review areas that need improvement. In other words, district stakeholders are asking themselves “where are we now, and where have we been?”, all in an effort to ensure that all WCSD students are prepared for college, military service, or highly-skilled careers.

This level of evaluation planning helps WCSD stay focused on high priority outcomes, and the WCSD Accountability Department provides data, tools, and support to district leaders, school teams, students, and families for using these data in their planning efforts.

Implementing and monitoring systemic SEL in WCSD

The implement stage of CI involves putting the plans that were developed in the previous stage into practice, monitoring the implementation process, and problem-solving challenges as they arise. This involves collecting implementation data and reflecting on it in formative ways to know the extent to which the district is on track for success.

WCSD’s implementation strategy is a districtwide approach: all schools in the district are provided with needed tools and supports to implement SEL for all students at all grade levels. Regarding the guiding question “how do we get from where we are not to where we want to be?”, WCSD uses a three-pronged approach for districtwide SEL that focuses on climate and culture, academic integration, and direct instruction.

Examples of how WCSD promotes a positive culture and climate are their deep integration of SEL with their multi-tiered systems of support, and their use of instructional practices that promote SEL such as the CASEL three signature practices. When it comes to integration and infusion of SEL into existing curriculum, WCSD has developed a set of SEL standards for students and adults aligned to the CASEL framework. These standards are intended to provide a set of benchmarks and a common language for understanding the social and emotional competencies students (and adults!) need to handle themselves, their relationships, and their work effectively and ethically. And for direct instruction, all schools implement evidence based programs that focus on developing students’ strong listening skills, disciplined self-awareness, and interpersonal relationships.

To monitor the implementation process, WCSD provides real-time data to educators in efficient ways. The district believes that a key component to supporting students is data. WCSD has a strong belief in transparency, and they strive to make data available and consumable to educators, principals, district leaders and community members so the individuals who are in front of students every day are well-informed and able to make data-driven decisions. For example, they have developed a comprehensive data warehouse that includes multiple sources of data related to student performance. Data from the warehouse is shared in various ways to support continuous improvement, including a public data page that includes easy-to-access information about academic performance, graduation rates, and SEL.

Another key feature of the data warehouse is that it is updated every night, and this real-time information can be viewed using various data dashboards that WCSD developed. For example, there are dashboards that are specific to elementary, middle, and high schools in the district. Dashboards include a variety of important information, such as data, grades, discipline data, and a risk index system that provides early warning about a student being off track for graduation.

The timeliness of how these data are shared allows WCSD educators and staff to act quickly if they see any of their students struggling, enabling them to address challenges by steering support to students immediately. This information is also critically important for adjusting plans and strategies that are being used to improve academic achievement and student thriving.

Promoting Improvement Through Data Analysis and Reflection

The improve stage of CI is when all of the hard work that was done over the course of the school year comes together. It’s a time to celebrate what was achieved, honor the challenges that were faced, and reflect on what was learned. It’s a way for the district to critically answer the questions “are we moving in the right direction?”  and “what are we learning on our journey?”

The mindset in WCSD is that there is a child behind each and every data point. Because of this, data collected in the district must be valid, analyzed, distributed, and consumed in a variety of meaningful ways. Two examples we will highlight are (1) their investigation of end-of-year outcomes and (2) their approach to collaborative and inclusive data reflection.

Investigating End-of-Year Outcomes

Since developing the student SEL survey, outcomes related to student social and emotional competencies continue to be used to inform district and school-site policy and programs. The data help educators and district leadership ensure that students’ needs are met and that their SEL skills continue to strengthen as they progress through school.

WCSD takes the analysis of these data to the next level by investigating variations in outcomes that they see between different subgroups of students. They forecasted this end-of-year investigation earlier in the year when evaluation planning. Looking into subgroups allows the district to identify inequities in their student data. For example, they found that there were a few gender, age, and race differences in how students responded to the SEL survey questions, especially in areas related to emotional awareness and self-management. These findings provided a jumping off point for deeper conversations on what could be root causes for those differences.

The district recently studied some of the differences that have been observed in how students learning English report their SEL competencies. Through an EdFirst Innovation Grant, they partnered with over 100 students at three schools with large populations of students who are Hispanic and/or learning English to start exploring these differences. They also gathered student recommendations about how to adjust SEL lessons that are facilitated in WCSD so they are more culturally inclusive and student friendly. Educators who participated in this effort rewrote and taught the new lessons using the feedback from students. By grounding these conversations in student voice data, WCSD is able to take real steps to promote inclusivity and equity throughout their school community.

These examples provide a snapshot of how WCSD is using multiple strategies to uncover disproportionalities in their data and exploring differences between different groups of students.

Collaborative and Inclusive Data Reflection

At the end of each year, WCSD hosts Data Summits where the Board of Trustees, district & school leadership, teacher representatives, parents, students, and community members come together for a full-day of facilitated conversations around district performance data and initiatives. These summits began in 2009, are designed to promote a culture of data use throughout the district and in schools, and reflect WCSD’s motivation to learn from evidence and use it to drive their CI cycle.

At the summits, climate data and SEL data are reviewed in combination with other data such as attendance, disciplinary referrals, and student performance measures. Each data summit has a data companion in the form of a book containing all of the data and information discussed in each topic-related breakout session. The Data Summit books can be viewed on the WCSD data webpage dedicated to these summits.

Groups of participants are strategically created to have representation from several stakeholder groups (e.g., trustees, leadership, principals, students, community members, parents). These mixed-groupings allow all participants to engage in rich conversations that ultimately help inform policy and school improvement planning. WCSD also hosts annual data summits specifically for students, in which student facilitators design interactive sessions for 400+ elementary, middle, and high school students on issues that are most important to students. The days end with action planning activities where students, in collaboration with school leaders, brainstorm ways to improve their schools based on what they learn from the day.  Many of the student voice presentations and Data Summit books can be viewed here or in a previous blog.

Re-Launching the CI Cycle

This blog post has covered a lot of ground related to WCSD’s journey through systemic SEL using CI as a guide. From high quality planning at the beginning of each year, to implementing and monitoring SEL throughout the year, reflecting on outcomes with a broad range of stakeholders and leveraging their perspectives to inform policy and planning in the coming year.

After this particular leg of the journey, they’re in a great place to re-launch the CI cycle by re-asking the question “where are we now and where have we been?” Over the summer and early on in that academic year they will be updating their plans based on what they learned, ensuring that they never stop improving, never stop challenging themselves and their students to achieve all they possibly can.

CASEL is grateful to our friends and colleagues in WCSD who have been partners since 2012. They were a perfect fit for the conclusion of this series of blog posts that focused on practical examples of CI from CASEL partner districts. We look forward to learning about the innovative strategies WCSD continues to develop as their SEL journey forges onward.

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