A concerned community member reached out to Parents Defending Education about Liberty Tech Charter School implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into the school curriculum. This person explained to PDE that the school implemented SEL with the help of the Second Step program in the 2021-2022 school year. The concerned community member continued to explain: “Once we realized it was occurring we fought it and were eventually (after a significant fight with many parents opposing it) allowed to opt our children out of the remaining lessons. We just received word that one of three SEL programs will be voted on and used next year – and that there will be no opt out option.”
PDE received several emails that the school sent to parents regarding the implementation of SEL. On October 1, 2021, the school counselor sent an email to parents stating that “next week, students will begin Second Step Middle School, a research-based social-emotional learning program designed to improve students’ social-emotional skills, such as emotion management, impulse control, problem solving, and empathy.” The counselor then provided the “skills and concepts” that Second Step promotes using SEL:
- Mindsets and Goals: Students learn how to develop a growth mindset and apply research-based goal-setting strategies to their social and academic lives.
- Recognizing Bullying and Harassment: Students learn how to recognize bullying and harassment, stand up safely to bullying, and respond appropriately to harassment.
- Thoughts, Emotions, and Decisions: Students learn how to recognize strong emotions and unhelpful thoughts, and apply strategies to manage their emotions and reduce stress.
- Managing Relationships and Social Conflict: Students learn strategies for developing and maintaining healthy relationships, perspective-taking, and dealing with conflict.
On October 5, 2021, the school counselor sent another email to parents promoting the implementation of Second Step’s SEL curriculum at the elementary level. The school counselor stated: “(Next or This) week, we’ll begin Second Step Elementary, a research-based social-emotional learning program designed to improve children’s social-emotional skills.” The SEL curriculum planned to target the following subjects:
- Growth Mindset & Goal-Setting: Children learn how to pay attention and manage distractions, develop a growth mindset, and apply goal-setting strategies to their social and academic lives.
- Emotion Management: Children learn how to identify and label emotions and use emotion-management strategies—including stress management for older students—to calm strong feelings.
- Empathy & Kindness: Children learn how to recognize kindness and act kindly, have empathy for others and take others’ perspectives, and recognize kind acts and empathy as important elements of building and maintaining relationships.
- Problem-Solving: Children learn how to identify and state a problem, recognize if a problem is an accident, and use the STEP problem-solving process:
- S: Say the problem
- T: Think of solutions
- E: Explore the outcomes
- P: Pick a solution
Second Step states on its website that the organization is “committed to addressing racial injustice and helping you drive real change in your school communities.” The organization also provides resources for educators to implement equity into the classroom. Two of the resources that Second Step offers are called “Talking to Kids About Racial Identity” and “Starting in the Classroom.”
On October 27, 2021, teachers appeared to email a document to parents to fill out and return. This document explains the subjects of Second Step SEL lessons taught to students and appears to invite parents to the school to learn more about the SEL curriculum.
On May 16, 2022, the school counselor sent another email to parents discussing how the school implemented SEL in the recent school year. The counselor then quotes the organization “CASEL” in stating that SEL is “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
CASEL is an organization that works with school districts throughout the country to use SEL in an effort to push “equity” and “social justice” in education. On July 1, 2020, CASEL promoted “racial justice” in discussing its roadmap for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. In explaining the importance of the reopening process for schools, the organization stated that “this moment called on all members of our school communities to deepen our social and emotional competencies and create equitable learning environments where all students and adults process, heal, and thrive.” CASEL also published a video in 2020 titled “SEL As a Lever for Equity and Social Justice.”
The counselor continues to explain in the email that “throughout the year we have been able to observe, collect data, and gain feedback from students and staff on our current SEL program, Second Step.” The school would now “like to gain feedback and input from the parents and guardians of our students on Second Step as well as two other program options for next school year.” The other two SEL programs are CharacterStrong and Move This World.
The counselor explains that the school will be implementing one of the three SEL programs in the upcoming school year. The counselor further explains that “there will not be an opt-out option” because “social-emotional learning focuses on universal skills such as self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making and the programs typically do not include a permission or opt-out form.” Parents are also told to fill out a survey by May 25, 2022, to provide feedback on Second Step and to rank their preferences of which SEL program to use in the next school year.
The organization CharacterStrong promotes a document titled “Commitment to Equity.” In this document, the organization states that it “believes that a commitment to equity is an ongoing process.” The organization also states that it recognizes “protecting time to examine our own biases, perspectives, and experiences.” CharacterStrong states in the document that having a commitment to equity includes “honoring the diverse traditions and backgrounds of team members (i.e. recognizing land acknowledgments, personal pronouns, and various holidays).” The organization also offers “Equity Training” for “$499.”
The organization also has a podcast that regularly focuses on the topic of “equity.” In an episode titled “Being Intentional About Putting A Focus On Equity,” a speaker who currently serves as a chief equity officer in a school district stated that it is important in schools to understand “taking the fear out of the word ‘privilege’ and recognizing that these discussions are not only long overdue but there’s no more excuse to not have them.” [Time Stamp: 5:15] She discussed how she helped make it mandatory for school staff in her district to participate in equity training on topics including race and gender.
In another podcast episode titled “Equity Work In The Classroom,” a guest speaker was a person who runs an organization called “Rethink Manhood” with a goal to “deconstruct and counter, cultural narratives regarding what it means to be a ‘real’ man.” The speaker focused on schools adopting a “culturally responsive pedagogy.” The term “culturally responsive” is often used to describe a method of teaching that includes the race and ethnicity of students as part of the lessons taught in classrooms. The speaker also focused on “ethnic studies” which additionally places race and ethnicity at the forefront of lessons taught to students in schools.
The organization Move This World also supports using SEL to implement equity into the curricula taught to students in schools. On March 24, 2022, the organization published a blog online titled “Using Social Emotional Learning Practices to Support Equity in Schools.” Move This World states in the blog that “as schools continue to move forward into the next phase of pandemic recovery, it is critical that education leaders place equity at the center of their future planning.” The organization then appears to focus on race: “While black and Latino students made up 37 percent of high school students, they accounted for 27 percent of students taking at least one AP course. It has become clear that despite the progress we have made as a society to bridge the gap of educational inequity, more work needs to be done.”
Move This World also promotes a paper titled “Building Equitable, Safe and Supportive Schools: Trauma and Culturally Sensitive Practices for Guidance” that the organization appeared to help publish. The paper promotes CASEL, students adopting “diversity appreciation,” and teachers adopting “well-scaffolded culturally responsive instruction.” The paper also promotes schools budgeting for “trauma-sensitive, culturally responsive instructional materials” to train teachers.