I Have A Dream for A Kinder, Braver, Safer World: Advancing the National Conversation and Support for Social Emotional Learning

I Have A Dream for A Kinder, Braver, Safer World: Advancing the National Conversation and Support for Social Emotional Learning
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It was 53 years ago today that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood upon the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told the nation about his dream of the day when all people from every city and state of the nation could stand and sing together in peace and harmony. While much of our nation may have moved closer to the world Dr. King envisioned since his I Have a Dream speech, some of this summer’s trending hashtags brought a crushing reminder that a nightmare remains for too many people.

#AltonSterling #PhilandoCastile #PrayForDallas

Only 53 days ago, Philando Castile, a black man, was shot and killed by a white police officer during a routine traffic stop in St. Paul, Minn. The day before that, police shot Alton Sterling to death in Baton Rouge, La. The day after the Castile incident, a sniper killed five police officers in Dallas.

As a native of Selma, Ala., and now a superintendent in Atlanta, I struggle to reconcile the anniversary of King’s speech – a message of racial harmony, hope and peace – with the violent summer of 2016 – a sad period of distress and despair. For many across the nation, the violence made us reconsider how much further we need to travel to achieve King’s dream.

Leading an urban school system of some 52,000 students, I have seen considerable progress among our beautiful children to help them develop the smarts and the hearts to be better adults than we could ever be. Yet against every data point for progress, I can simply go into our schools and neighborhoods and find numerous instances where we lack the abilities and the strategies to prevent and stop violence.

Too many adults and children, especially in our urban centers, live with chronic stress, elevated levels of cortisol and often remain in fight, flight or freeze mode. They need support in developing critical life skills, and it is our moral imperative to provide that support.

Aristotle understood this thousands of years ago when he said “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

The good news is that change can start in our public schools if we focus on a national solution for the social, emotional and academic development of our students. But, it’s not possible to move the country on our own. It’s imperative that our national leaders endorse and support the effort.

After the terrible summer of violence, Tim Shriver, co-founder of Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL); John Bridgeland, President and CEO of Civic Enterprises; and I met with U.S. Department of Education officials in Washington, D.C., to request very specific supports of the social and emotional development of our youth:

  • Recommendation of a presidential executive order or memorandum for collection and dissemination of best practice programming;
  • Provision of guidance, resources and tools to state education agencies and local education agencies;
  • Leverage existing funding streams; and
  • Advance social emotional learning or SEL as an employability strategy.

It was just the first step to get national leaders talking about the most important issue of the day: making the country—and the world—better for young people now and in the future.

The actual work must start with strategies to stop violence in urban centers and schools. Students in these environments need support in developing critical life skills, and it is our moral imperative to provide it—no different than providing the academic building blocks these students need to succeed.

I believe a plan rooted in social and emotional learning can be replicated across our nation to teach foundational skills necessary for the long-term academic and psycho-social success of all students, while at the same time providing adequate mental health intervention for those students who need the additional support. These skills can be taught and these supports can be provided if we commit to the change.

We can also do more to build bridges between students, especially our African-American students, and law enforcement officers. In Atlanta Public Schools, we re-imagined safety and security in our schools with a groundbreaking in-house police department, comprised of 68 officers, aligned with the triad-model for school safety. These officers are mentoring, teaching, and policing in a way that is appropriately adapted for educational environments.

Centuries after our country’s founding and decades after the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, it is past time to take action to create a kinder, braver, safer future for our children now and for generations to come. Just as 1963 served as a “new beginning” for one movement, 2016 can serve as a different launching point for another movement – a movement emerging from love, hope and respect just as the first one did.

So as we remember #AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastile, as we #PrayForDallas, let’s do the work that leads to a new trending hashtag, one that reflects a better part of us.


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