RSF School board hears parent support for social emotional learning at Rowe

R. Roger Rowe School.
(Karen Billing)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District board’s March 10 meeting included a listening session on social emotional learning that at times was very personal as parents discussed the challenges that today’s kids face and how the school can support them.

Many parents have grown concerned about the future of social emotional learning (SEL) at R. Roger Rowe School following the disbandment of the SEL committee, questions from the board about SEL as they try to understand what is being taught, and rumors spreading among the school community. The situation was compounded by the resignation of the school counselor Carly Bourque on March 3.

RSF School Board President John Tree said the board was not making any decision on SEL at the meeting, it was just a chance for the board to help understand the views of the community.

“All of us are here with the intention of trying to put our heads together to make this place better for our kids and everyone’s kids,” Tree said. “As a board we have not changed or canceled or tweaked or in any way modified our SEL program.”

He said the SEL program in place will continue until the new superintendent is hired and the board will look to the new leader for guidance, to hold more community meetings and bring a recommendation for what might change.

The California Department of Education defines SEL as “the critical role of positive relationships and emotional connections in the learning process.” It helps students develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to promote healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal goals and feel and show empathy for others.

Social-emotional learning became a RSF School board priority in the 2018-19 school year and the SEL committee was established, composed of administrators, teachers and parents. The committee created Rancho Santa Fe’s SEL competencies which include self management, responsible decision making, social awareness, relationship skills, community and global awareness.

Teachers wanted their students to learn to be able to appropriately monitor emotions and behaviors, manage stress, demonstrate impulse control, empathize with others, appreciate diversity and show concern for the welfare of others within the classroom, school and community.

The SEL committee also recommended that the district hire a school counselor and Bourque was hired in 2020.

At the elementary level, SEL is provided four days a week for 30 minutes a day including morning meetings with greetings, sharing, a message for the day, and an activity around one of the SEL competencies. On Fridays, the school comes together for Friday on the Field.

At the middle school level, students have advisory meetings for the first 20 to 30 minutes of class—the meetings are meant to support students in building meaningful relationships with one or more adults at school, to strengthen their social and study skills, and develop a sense of belonging.

At the March 3 meeting, Tree said the board chose not to constrain public comment, allowing speakers five minutes to speak rather than the usual three. Among the many speakers there was clear support for SEL, no one spoke in opposition. Parent Calli Kelsay said that there was a room full of adults that care, who are looking to do better for their children.

Many parents and teachers at school that day were wearing green to represent taking a stand for mental health awareness.

Parents urged the district to hire not just one but two school counselors, to reinstate the SEL committee, and to tap into the resources at the county level as they look to strengthen or develop Rowe’s SEL curriculum. Many parents spoke tearfully about bullying at the school and the need for the district to do more to help students interact in a more supportive and healthy way.

Some parents didn’t understand the controversy about SEL or the board’s perceived reluctance toward it. Parent Jessica Greenstein said SEL provides a foundation for a child’s success and that there is a place for it to be taught at school: “Academics are just a piece of (education). When kids are happy, when they’re social, when they have friends, when they have a safe space, they can thrive academically,” she said.

Parent Kelly Motadel shared that recently both of her children used SEL tools they learned in school to overcome “a bump in a friendship” and the passing of their grandmother.

“While fostering social development in the home is critical, it is important to keep SEL in our schools continuously given the amount of time our children spend here and the interactions that they have,” Motadel said. “The relationships that they form at school matter and how they are treated by fellow classmates and teachers matter. They matter for their mental health and even for their physical health.”

During public comment, teacher Jessica Henke said she came to address a rumor that teachers do not support SEL. Moving forward, she asked that the board be willing to work with the staff.

“With all of the changes happening with the superintendent and administration, the teachers are consistent. We’re here, we’re present. I love my job so much so I want you to love that I love my job and I want you to respect the fact that I have a lot to offer,” said Henke, who has been at the school for almost 20 years. “We’re here, we’re ready. All of the teachers want to help you make good decisions but we haven’t been asked. So start asking us. We’re here.”

The board as a whole did not discuss SEL that day or make any comments. Tree said he was “deeply touched” by how the meeting went and that parents were willing to show up and be vulnerable and share their thoughts and feelings.

He remarked that the loss of the school counselor was regrettable and the board has every intention to replace the position—the board only that day approved her resignation. He said that the hiring of a new counselor is not tied to the hiring of the new superintendent and in the future the board could discuss the idea of an additional counselor.