4 reasons alternative schools need a SEL curriculum

How an alternative high school has used its social-emotional learning curriculum to shift its culture, engage students, and improve its on-time graduation rates.
Ceatriss Wall is the principal of Pathfinder High School in Lander, Wy.
Ceatriss Wall is the principal of Pathfinder High School in Lander, Wy.

As the alternative high school for our district, Pathfinder High School serves students in grades 9-12. We average about 50 students per semester and work with a diverse group of students that comes to us because traditional high school just wasn’t working for them. Our students are blessed to have this option, and we’re fortunate to have them as our students.

Our first year in existence (2017) we really just wanted to get a few kids over the graduation line. This year, we produced 14 graduates—10 of whom are now college-bound (with scholarships) and exploring secondary options. This is a big win for our families, many of which have never had a child or parent graduate from high school, let alone attend college. We’ve been slowly improving our on-time graduation rate since 2017 – going from 58% to 77%.

Managing complex life situations

Many of our students have complex life situations. Their hearts are solid, but they’re tough kids who are reluctant to let anyone in. Knowing this, we implemented the 7 Mindsets social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum four years ago. We were at a point where we needed a tool that could help shift our culture, engage our students, and improve our on-time graduation rates.

Here are four different ways our SEL curriculum has helped us achieve these goals in the alternative school setting:

  1. SEL is for students and SEL doesn’t happen in a bubble. To be the most meaningful, both teacher and student have to be on board and involved. We have an incredible staff here that trained with the team from our SEL provider and then hit the ground running with the new lessons. For example, using the “passion” mindset, teachers choose something that they’re passionate about and then develop a lesson around that passion. One teacher who loves cake decorating, for example, teaches a class on how to decorate cakes. This really helps bring to light the fact that teachers are human and they have interests and passions that they want to share.
  1. It helps reset the clock for students. Many of our students have struggled with historical trauma and social issues. They all learn differently. We tell them that they’re here not because they weren’t successful someplace else, but because they can be. We want to give them a fresh start and a new beginning, and our SEL curriculum helps us with that reset. For example, it allows students to think more intrinsically about what matters to them. What are they passionate about? What are their goals and dreams? What type of relationships do they want to have? When students and educators engage in these conversations about what matters to them, that’s when the real learning takes place.
  1. Students learn to “live to give.” Giving is difficult, even for adults. Receiving is even harder. With the live to give mindset, students learn the value that comes when you have something to give. Our kids just jump on that and embrace it. They understand that if they have something to share that it makes them valuable. This changes everything at the most functional level as our students come up with activities and options that reflect this mindset. For instance, one of our students who was passionate about fishing said, “I bet there are some middle school kids who need some friends? Can we get a bus? Can we take them fishing?” This is just one example of how kids are sharing their passions and learning the value of giving in life; it changes everything. 
  1. Embrace challenges. There’s a perception that life is great, and that if you have a great life then you’ve got it made. In reality, we all endure hard times. At Pathfinder High School, we incorporate the growth mindset in our lessons. Every week we’re talking about how “tough” can be good, and that it challenges us all to learn and grow. Put simply, if it doesn’t come easy, it’s fantastic. It gives us all the opportunity to learn new skills.

Anything is possible

This year, our students will be working with our SEL curriculum once a week and we will discuss the mindsets every day. Teachers are in the classroom learning right along with their students, talking things out, and building on outside activities that allow us to use the same SEL language, and growth mindset. We’re pleased with the progress we’ve made over the last four years. All of our students come from diverse backgrounds and have voices that deserve to be heard. Our SEL curriculum has truly given our kids that voice and helped them be confident in the knowledge that they can go out and achieve anything, and that anything’s possible.

Ceatriss Wall is the principal of Pathfinder High School in Lander, Wy.

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