Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are the cornerstones of well-rounded citizens. Grant Beacon Middle School (GBMS), located in southeast Denver is leading the way when it comes to promoting SEL for all students.

SEL is defined as “the process through which people 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.” It focuses on knowledge, attitudes and skills in five competency areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. SEL skills can help students find success both inside and out of school.

Grant Beacon is the flagship school of the Beacon Network which, last week, won approval from the DPS board to operate as an autonomous innovation zone.

Beacon schools prioritize personalized learning through critical thinking, blended learning, extended day opportunities, and character development. Through its school-wide commitment to integrating the whole child and character development initiatives into everything they do, GBMS has been able to make their focus on SEL unique and sustainable through a focus on creating a positive culture and character development.

Positive Culture at Grant Beacon Middle School

Students are not learning if they are not feeling safe, loved or do not have their basic needs. The entire staff of GBMS takes on the tasks of providing a safe and nurturing environment of high expectations for all of their students.

How do they create a school-wide positive culture and character development? Through a three-fold approach:

  1. Analyze the data and prioritize knowing kids individually and as a whole in the deep and intimate way,
  2. Prioritize funds and resources to provide wrap-around services,
  3. Integrate high expectations, social-emotional learning, student voice and celebration into all aspect of school;

Gathering data and spending intentional and specific-time relationship building and knowing all of their students is an important first step in GBMS’s approach to a positive culture and character development. GBMS’s students come from diverse and often heavily impacted communities. The staff spends their professional development time understanding trauma, poverty, equity, culture and learning needs so that they can better serve and support their students. They use the data team time to dive deep into the data and analyze student behavior in and out of the classroom, attendance and quarterly feedback students report on how they are perceiving GBMS and their classroom environments and interactions. This data is used to prioritize the funds and build major improvement strategies around student needs, trends and student-voice.

As an innovation zone, Beacon Schools have more control over their time and money to consistently prioritize school culture. Positive culture of the building and student-voice is a top priority. GBMS achieves this through their Deans of Students, incredible teachers and by promoting student voice.

SEL Throughout our Ecosystem

Dean of Students. There is a Dean of Students assigned to each grade level at GBMS (grades 6th-8th) that loops with the students as the move through the middle school. Deans are essential in promoting positive initiatives with their students – from team building advisory lessons, transitions from elementary or to high school, attendance challenges and weekly celebrations. All while being also being available to any student, parent or staff member that needs assistance with behavior management or general bumps in the road. The Deans work closely with GBMS’s mental health staff (which GBMS prioritizes in their school-based budget) to implement restorative practices and trauma-informed discipline interventions.

Teachers. GBMS’s teachers know the emphasis on culture adds more work to their plates but they are all committed to the extra efforts as they see the value first-hand. Each teacher commits to yearlong professional development in the areas of mindfulness, equity and bias, trauma-informed classrooms and de-escalation. They have an advisory group that they adopt as their “family” that they start every morning with and facilitate extended classes with on Fridays/ These extended classes often consist of restorative practices, “peace circles”, tools for academic organizations, team building and school-wide competitions.

GBMS invests in an online behavioral tool – Live School – where their teachers and staff can publicly give students points connected to their character traits (perseverance, integrity, curiosity, kindness and leadership) to continually promote positive behaviors, interactions and value the great things students are doing. In the past, GBMS measured students referrals and suspensions. Since transitioning to measuring positive character traits the entire school culture has shifted. Live School and students’ Character Trait Averages allow students and parents to get real-time and daily feedback on their character. In addition, students can use their points to purchase incentives, spirit wear and even a VIP pass to GBMS social.

Students. GBMS includes their students in the conversation when it comes to creating a positive school-wide culture. The GBMS Student Voice Committee meets monthly to discuss data, process ideas and get student feedback. Some of the school’s greatest initiatives and celebrations have come from intentionally tapping into their student’s voices.

Celebrating students is a top priority at GBMS. Every Friday the entire student population and staff come together for weekly community meetings where students are honored in the areas of math, reading, attendance, character and “Students of the Week”. The teachers give individual shout-outs and “griffin bucks” to shining stars each week and publicly acknowledge the students that are doing the right thing.

GBMS’s focus on a positive school-wide culture has done something amazing. It has become cool to be positive and to excel. Which we all know is no small feat in a Middle School!

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