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BPS hires social-emotional learning expert

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
BPS hires social-emotional learning expert
Amalio Nieves (Photo: Photo courtesy BPS)

Boston Public Schools has hired an Assistant Superintendent of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness, a new position intended to enhance offerings in non-academic skills such as collaboration, self-advocacy, anger management and conflict resolution.

The appointment of Amalio Nieves was announced to the Boston School Committee on Oct. 28. Nieves has 30 years of experience in the education field, according to BPS, and was most recently director of the Diversity, Prevention and Intervention department in the Broward County, Florida public schools, the sixth-largest U.S. school district.

“Social emotional learning is key to a student’s academic success,” said BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang, “and it needs to be incorporated into a child’s learning at a young age. Amalio Nieves has a track record of building powerful partnerships and putting into place best practices that have demonstrated tangible results.”

The new position is believed to be the first such cabinet-level post in a public school district in the nation.

“As a large urban school district, we’re excited that we’ll have a department focused on ensuring a strong grounding on social emotional skills and wellness, and that we have a new assistant superintendent [for it],” said Dr. Karla Estrada, BPS’s deputy superintendent of student support services, who will work closely with Nieves.

Social emotional learning — along with related phrases such as non-cognitive skills, 21st century skills and grit — is garnering increasing attention across the state and nation, but the idea is not new to educators in the field.

“We’ve all, over the years, seen a rise in emphasis on mental health support for our students,” Estrada said in a telephone interview. “As we’ve studied why kids drop out and why they become disengaged with school, that has really raised the attention on not just academics, but on behavior and mental health.”

Jim Vetter, steering committee co-chair of the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts, is encouraged by BPS’s increasing focus on SEL. He noted that Boston schools are already using a number of ‘evidence-based’ SEL programs, among them Open Circle, Second Step and Responsive Classroom.

Done right, Vetter said, SEL is evidence-based and consistently used, infused and modeled throughout the school day.

“Effective SEL includes structured lessons — for example, in effective problem-solving — but it doesn’t stop at a 45-minute lesson one or two times per week. It’s connected in everything that’s taught,” he said.

One of the reasons SEL discussions have ramped up lately is that a growing body of research points to its positive impact on students’ academic outcomes, well-being, college attendance, future income and reduced likelihood of criminal conviction.

A recent statewide policy forum in Boston co-hosted by the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy, MassINC and Transforming Education spotlighting some of the data coming out of randomized and longitudinal studies on social emotional learning.

“We believe the research case for the importance of SEL to lifelong outcomes is so compelling, that education policy needs to move ahead now to include them,” said Chris Gabrieli, co-founder of Transforming Education, a nonprofit that translates educational research into policy and practice.

At the forum, Gabrieli and co-founder Sara Bartolino Krachman presented highlights from an upcoming report, “Ready to be Counted,” which compiled data from numerous SEL studies.

A New Zealand study that tracked children from birth to age 40 found that the likelihood of criminal conviction in adulthood correlated strongly with self-control ability in childhood; the lowest self-control children were three times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system as adults than were children showing high self-control skills.

“I do think this suggests we get to work on understanding how to help support kids to have higher self-control in their earlier years,” Gabrieli said.

Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner, said SEL comes up nearly every time he meets with teachers or school administrators.

“It’s certainly an issue our superintendents and principals and teachers have identified as critical,” he said in videotaped remarks at the forum. “Many of you are increasingly facing a challenge of working with young people who in one way or the other are challenged, socially or behaviorally or emotionally.”

Chester sought to dispel the notion of SEL as impinging on academic time.

“Sometimes it’s framed as academics vs. social or emotional dimensions,” he said. “For me, it’s not an either/or proposition. We have to work on both of these. Children who are not available in terms of emotions, attitudes and ability to focus … are not available to learn.”

In Boston, City Councilor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley has worked for years to push awareness of SEL’s importance. In 2012, she and former City Councilor John Connolly sponsored a hearing on equitable access to social and emotional support services and curricula in BPS.

Pressley emphasized that different types of stresses could affect readiness to learn for a wide spectrum of students.

“I think people have underestimated how pervasive trauma is and how it affects the whole school community,” she told the Banner. “It could be a new immigrant, it could be a child battling anxiety, a child whose parents are going through a divorce, a child who has lost someone in their school community, whether through cancer or violence.”

On the Web

For more information on social emotional learning:

SEL Alliance for Massachusetts

Transforming Education

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

Boston Public Schools

Pressley, Estrada and others echoed Secretary Chester in the idea that school systems needn’t and shouldn’t think of SEL vs. academic learning as a tradeoff.

“There’s no tradeoff,” Pressley said. “This should never be an ‘OR.’ It’s an ‘AND.’ It’s the foundation for everything else. Every student and every educator stands to benefit from an investment in social and emotional support.”

At Broward County Public Schools, Nieves developed and managed a number of SEL policies and initiatives, according to a biography of Nieves furnished by BPS, including multi-tiered systems of support, positive behavior intervention supports, racial equity, human relations, violence prevention, peer counseling, substance abuse prevention, LGBTQ inclusion, character education and sexual health. Nieves also led efforts to adopt Florida’s first anti-bullying policy and curb the “school-to-prison pipeline” with programs and actions that reduced school-related misdemeanor arrests and student suspensions.

Nieves is expected to start work at BPS on Nov. 9. What SEL will look like in BPS under Nieves’s direction has not yet been spelled out, but Estrada emphasized that part of the goal is to formalize SEL efforts BPS already pursues and create an overall strategy affecting all departments.

BPS takes a multi-tiered system of support approach, she explained. “For social emotional learning, that’s ensuring that we’re specifically teaching in a manner so that kids can use the skills. For example, in a problem-solving activity we say, ‘This is challenging, but you can persist and succeed.’ We’ll be working to become explicit in teaching these things.” The new department also serves to ensure that those students who need more support are identified and provided services, she noted.

The Office of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness will not be a “siloed” initiative, Estrada said, but integrated into all of the academic and behavior initiatives that address aspects of social and emotional wellness.

“We’re working to determine how exactly we can roll this out. We know our schools are doing great work every day,” she said. “It’s not necessarily adding something new.”