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Creating Connections

My conference experience on Thursday had a common theme from start to finish. Students thrive when they are connected to school; students disengage and struggle when they aren’t. And, it is the adults in schools who create the conditions that helps students connect.  

This is nothing new to the attendees of NCE and to those who work daily with students.  What was striking to to me was the fact that the Center’s for Disease Control (CDC) was here, at an educational conference. They weren’t here to talk about the Corona virus, or influenza, or even vaccinations. They were here co-presenting with the National Center for School Safety on adverse childhood experiences.  

Phyllis Holditch Niolon presented updated findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences and updated information about Adverse Community Environments (ACEs).  The key takeaways: ACEs are prevalent, their impact is horrible on short-term and long-term quality of life; however, they can be prevented and we can adopt protective factors in our schools and communities that mitigate their impact.

Co-presenter Thomas Reischl shared the work of the National Center for School Safety. They are a newly federally funded center to study evidence on school safety. Over the next few years they will be compiling research on 11 core areas of school safety. It wasn’t a coincidence that these two agencies presented together. The message from both presenters was that schools can create a positive and protective community environment that helps prevent school violence and protects students. When we teach skills, social-emotional learning, violence prevention, and PBIS, and create supportive school cultures, students will build connections and receive support, and this will increase school safety.  Resources and a school safety funding opportunities were shared. 

The remainder of my daily sessions filled my toolkit with strategies and resources to help me lead my district efforts to create the positive community environments that create protective factors and teach skills for our students. 

The energetic team from Pennsylvania, Rhonda Brunner, Ann Goudino, Samantha Neidinger, and Travis Waters, shared the why, what and how PBIS and culturally relevant pedagogy are improving student achievement in their district. They stressed that for implementation to be successful, the principal is key.  Thank you to the team for anchoring the presentation in the research about equity, school to prison pipeline, and that through our leadership and practice, we can connect vs. expel our students from our school communities.

In the Knowledge Exchange Theater an outstanding panel shared their strategies for creating Trauma Sensitive Schools.  Presenters reminded us that practices that are good for kids experiencing trauma are good for all kids.  When we design school cultures sensitive to impacts of trauma, these are school cultures that help all students connect.  AASA and CASEL have created a resource for superintendents DISTRICTWIDE SEL: ESSENTIALS FOR SUPERINTENDENTS: A Toolkit to Support District Leadership in Systemic Implementation of Social Emotional Learning.

In the closing keynote by author David Brooks, I heard the same message that we began the day with, however in starker terms and in a manner that calls us to action to help guide our nation and our nation’s children through this turbulent time. Mr. Brooks reminded us that never before has any nation attempted to do what we are in the midst of doing: 1) holding a democracy together, maintaining and growing a country with immense diversity, without a majority group, while at the same time 2) figuring out this new communication strategy of social media. Presently, the social indicators show we are not doing well. The U.S. has high rates of loneliness and distrust, resulting in high rates of suicide and depression.

Given this stark message, Mr. Brooks shared some rays of light and hope. Through his work he has been studying “weavers.”  These are individuals who help connect communities by building relationships.  They “see” those around them. They see the hopes, talents and inherent good in those they serve. As superintendents, are we seeing those around us? Are we creating schools where all students are seen?  We have an awesome power: the power of recognition, the ability to let students, staff and families know that we see them and that they belong.  

As we continue our learning today and tomorrow, and when we return back to our districts, I challenge us all to take this message back with us. Each child needs a caring adult, one who believes in them when they don’t believe in themselves. A caring adult who sees the talents that exist in each child and youth. With this insight, we can then create the environments with appropriate supports to ensure all will succeed, no exceptions.       

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