RSF School board to discuss Rowe’s social-emotional learning program

R. Roger Rowe School.
(Karen Billing)

Some Rancho Santa Fe School District parents are speaking up for the value of social and emotional learning at R. Roger Rowe School, a set of skills and tools taught to students to help manage triggers and everyday emotions, to show empathy for others and reach positive goals.

During public comment at the Jan. 27 meeting, parents said they are concerned that the district’s Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Committee had been disbanded by the board and questioned the direction the district is planning to take with SEL.

Calli Kelsay, a parent volunteer on the SEL committee, said that she was caught off-guard when the committee was shut down without notice. She knows the importance of SEL having worked on many youth mental health and well-being efforts—she is president of Safe Kids San Diego, community education advisor for the Transforming Mental Health Initiative at Rady Children’s Hospital, and the co-founder of Skate Rising, an organization that creates an inclusive space for young girls.

“All four of my children have had adverse experiences here with other children at the school,” Kelsay said. She shared that according to the U.S. surgeon general’s health advisory on mental health, 50% of girls reported feeling hopeless and alone, even prior to the pandemic. She added that the district’s strategic planning survey showed 37.5% of Rowe Middle School staff feel dissatisfied with their jobs and that she knows of children in the community as young as third grade that have had suicidal ideation—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-14.

“To ignore this is nothing short of negligent,” Kelsay said. “SEL is not a cure-all but it is a foundational point to build a caring and more connected community which is what we lack as of now.”

She and other parents requested that the board learn from informed sources about SEL and seek better ways to support the students and their families. Parent Nadelle Kijewski said that the board has an opportunity to rebuild the school community with a research-based SEL program that addresses the “crumbling mental health and bullying on the playground and the board room.”

“We have created standards for the pledge of allegiance instead of standards for kindness,” Kijewski said. “Despite what you have been told, SEL is not brainwashing, critical race theory nor is it grooming of any kind. SEL is common sense.”

RSF School Board President John Tree said he appreciated the parents’ comments and thoughts on SEL and said that the topic will be on the agenda for discussion at the next regular board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m.

“I personally have been negligent in my own understanding of SEL. I’ve committed publicly to learning more about it and to put it on the agenda for a healthy discussion and way forward for our school district,” Tree said. “ I do understand there are parts of it that have become politicized, which is always tragic and unfortunate when that happens, but we’re committed on the board to do the right thing by the kids.”

CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, defines SEL as the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

The district’s SEL committee, composed of administrators, teachers and parents, began working in May 2019 toward implementation in the following school year. Trustee Jee Manghani said the work of the SEL committee came on the heels of the tragic school shooting in Parkland—there was a lot of agitation in the community about preventing school violence and the thought was that one of the best preventative actions was to ensure kids at Rowe knew one another and treat each other with respect: “It wasn’t meant to be political in any way, just to increase the love and care we have for one another at the school,” Manghani said.

At Rowe, SEL promotes learning competencies such as community and global awareness, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision making and self-management. The district’s strategic design survey last year showed parents and students were interested in anti-bullying and mental health support, as well as creating a positive student culture that develops the three R’s: Responsibility, Respect and Resiliency.

Trustee Annette Ross said she has listened to many different opinions on SEL and would like to keep an open mind—she had requested a board conversation on SEL to understand what the district is teaching, the program it is using and how the district is equipped to help students who are struggling.

“My concern with SEL is not that I don’t believe we need more kindness and compassion, I just believe there’s many potential paths to get there,” Ross said. “I think our first purpose at Roger Rowe is the education of the students: reading, writing and arithmetic. We’re working hard to continue to be more rigorous in each discipline and I think we have to be careful and attentive should we venture outside of those subjects to the conversation of psychology of a child.

“None of us knows better for any child here than their parents and I will always support how a parent chooses to raise their child and incorporate their values.”

Ross said while she is open to learning more, she is concerned that SEL promotes just one way of thinking and she is also not comfortable with the surveys and sometimes invasive questions it asks of students.

The district has recently taken many steps to improve safety on campus, from adding board and staff positions focused on campus security, improved fencing and locks, and alternative protocols to hiring substitute teachers. During public comment, parent and former board member Kali Kim said she believes SEL is just as important in helping kids feel safe at school.

“Please allow our teachers and counselors the freedom to do their work,” Kim said. “ I strongly believe addressing structured SEL will have more of an impact on the safety of my child here at R. Roger Rowe than locked doors.”