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Looking Beyond Test Scores
Harrisburg, PA

As the demand for higher test scores and larger gains in academic achievement grows across the country, so do the obstacles children face outside of the classroom that can hinder their success in school and throughout life. When Harrisburg, PA, received a Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) grant in 2002, community and educational leaders realized they had an opportunity to create an infrastructure to help students overcome obstacles to success, such as substance use and violent or disruptive behavior.

Ultimately, this is about building a greater democracy.

—Judy Nuss,
Coordinator for Social and
Emotional Learning, Harrisburg
Schools, Harrisburg, PA
Harrisburg’s schools joined forces with other community organizations to establish a system of programs and services within the school setting to address the causes of these obstacles. The goal of these programs was to teach kids to manage their emotions, solve problems, and make responsible decisions—the principles behind social and emotional learning. Today, Harrisburg has gone far beyond their initial goals, implementing a system and community-wide approach to social and emotional learning that helps kids reach their potential in academics and beyond.

“We need to grow individuals who know how to manage their emotions, make decisions, and solve problems. It’s essential that the social and emotional component be a part of a child’s experience,” says Judy Nuss, the district coordinator for social and emotional learning.”

Expanding the Scope of Learning

Harrisburg’s SS/HS initiative’s work to incorporate social and emotional learning into schools began by training all district teachers, kindergarten through fifth grade, in the PATHS (Promoting Alternative THinking Strategies) curriculum. Through regular lessons, students learn self-control, problem-solving, and other skills designed to prevent violent or disruptive behavior. Bringing four PATHS coaches on board as part of their SS/HS program, Harrisburg was able to support teachers in using the program, helping to ensure its sustainability once grant funding was gone.

Complementing PATHS, Harrisburg also trained more than 200 teachers and other educators in Responsive Classroom, an approach to classroom management that helps teachers incorporate regular lessons about respect and responsibility into their learning environment. By helping teachers establish positive control over classrooms, they have been able to reduce the time they spend dealing with negative behavior and give more time to teaching.

As another part of their efforts to weave social and emotional learning into the school day, Harrisburg implemented the Peacemakers violence prevention program for students in grades four through eight. Facilitated by school guidance counselors and behavioral health care workers from a community partner, Peacemakers teaches children important conflict resolution skills and helps them develop positive attitudes through regular lessons as the program’s principles and techniques are weaved into the school environment. This provides students with the knowledge and skills to make good decisions and take control of situations, preventing violent behavior before it starts.

Sharing the Vision

Implementing the complementary programs that put social and emotional learning into the daily lives of Harrisburg students was only the first step. The second step was to build support among education and community leaders as well as Harrisburg’s parents by demonstrating the effectiveness of this new approach to education. This support would also help to sustain this approach, making social and emotional learning an integral part of the educational experience—inside and beyond the walls of the school buildings—for Harrisburg’s children.

Since many teachers and administrators helped to implement programs such as PATHS and Responsive Classroom, the impact of social and emotional learning became well-known among staff and faculty. This caught the attention of district leaders, and the superintendent made social and emotional learning a priority. Harrisburg’s schools created the coordinator for social and emotional learning position, carving out a place for prevention in the schools’ resource planning and allocation decisions.

The newly hired Judy Nuss and the SS/HS leadership began reaching out to the community to build a broader coalition of support. To begin, they invited community leaders and representatives from local agencies, including their SS/HS partners, to a formal meeting. Here, the entire community began to work on integrating social and emotional learning into all aspects of community life to assist Harrisburg’s young people in achieving their full potential. Their efforts to raise awareness could be seen all over town. Magnets on the side of school vehicles and posters throughout the community carried their message and asked people, “Have you given a child hope today?”

“When others embraced our vision, it was a real ‘ah-ha’ moment for me,” said Nuss.

For Harrisburg, sustainability has meant expansion as they seek to build on the gains that began with their SS/HS grant. Within the schools, they are exploring ways to expand social and emotional learning in secondary schools and working to train all of the district’s teachers in incorporating these important lessons into their daily routines. Beyond school walls, Nuss and other members of Harrisburg’s informal coalition are spreading their message throughout the community, speaking to community groups and working to engage families in the process. They envision a vertical continuum, where Harrisburg’s kids are exposed to these lessons in all aspects of their lives, from the breakfast table to the classroom, and are equipped with the skills and abilities to find success in school and beyond.

Communities on the Road to Success: Harrisburg, PA
Nearly 80 percent of the children in the Harrisburg, PA, school district experience some form of economic disadvantage. In 2002, poor academic achievement, low school attendance, and a high dropout rate presented significant barriers to youth development in this community of 50,000. Since funding began in 2002, the Harrisburg School District SS/HS initiative has improved the quality of services, reduced the duplication of services, and increased community participation in the support and delivery of services. Improvement has occurred every year in academic achievement, school attendance, graduation rate, and number of dropouts. Together with community partners, the Harrisburg SS/HS collaboration implemented programs and identified resources to reduce the barriers to healthy student development. These resources include evidence-based curricula in preK–8, teacher training, a mentoring program, a developmental preschool, school-based mental health services, after-school programs, school resource officers, and probation officers.

U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Justice
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Last Updated on 1/27/2015