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NYC’s controversial social skills assessment helped this Brooklyn school. Getting there hasn’t been easy.

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Kiri Soares, principal at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, has embedded the DESSA and social emotional learning into the Brooklyn school’s culture.

Christina Veiga / Chalkbeat

The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Educators and families were in wide agreement: Students would need help adjusting socially and emotionally to being back in classrooms this year amid the COVID pandemic. 

But one of New York City’s plans to do that — by using a questionnaire called the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, or DESSA, in every school — was quickly met with backlash. Educators, already overwhelmed trying to meet the pandemic-era needs of students, worried it was time-consuming, and they feared they couldn’t accurately answer the questions about students they hardly knew at the start of the year. Some concerned parents opted their children out.  

Brooklyn principal Kiri Soares could relate. 

She also struggled to figure out how her school could use the DESSA to help her students at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women.

That was more than five years ago. 

Now, the assessment is steeped in the school culture, and Soares and her counseling team say it has been an integral part of preparing students for success — both academically and outside the classroom. But it took time and resources to figure out how to shift the school’s culture to make the tool useful, raising questions about how easily other schools could replicate their model as classrooms continue to be rocked by the pandemic.

“It wasn’t smooth,” Soares said. “You can just roll assessments out there and expect them to be useful if you don’t have time and energy.”

‘Skills that undergird a child’s academic success’

This year, New York City mandated that every school administer the questionnaire through a three-year, $18 million contract with Aperture, the education technology company. 

The Urban Assembly network, a nonprofit group that supports 23 schools across New York City including the Institute of Math and Science, had already been using the DESSA for years to address students’ social wellbeing. 

Schools use a version of the screening tool that consists of 43 questions that educators answer about their students’ social skills such as decision-making, self-awareness, and taking personal responsibility. 

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, has recently gained traction across the country as an important part of what students should learn in school. But lately, the approach has become wrapped up in heated fights tied to social justice issues.

Brandon Frame, the director of social-emotional learning at Urban Assembly, said oftentimes people’s skepticism is tied to misunderstanding what social-emotional learning is. He emphasized that it focuses on building skills and attitudes students need to navigate life in the classroom and beyond: teaching them how to set and achieve goals, for example.

“There’s no community that I go to and they say, I don’t want my child to develop [these] skills,” Frame said. “These are skills that students need to be successful, that ultimately impact our communities.” 

Soares said it’s also helpful to be clear about what the DESSA is not. It is not, she stressed, a measure of a student’s mental health. It’s not going to help diagnose or treat depression, for example.

“We are looking for the social emotional skills that undergird a child’s academic success. Like, I don’t want my teachers to be counselors. I have counselors, and I have teachers,” she said. 

“But I do want my teachers to help kids, plan, time management, prioritize, learn how to listen, speak respectfully, track the speaker when they’re talking. Those are core skills that help them be academically successful. That’s what the DESSA looks for,” she said.

Counseling teams and peer-to-peer connections

Fine-tuning the approach at the Institute of Math and Science took years and also relied on support from the Urban Assembly network.

Teachers are responsible for administering the questionnaires only for the students in their advisory period, which is usually a smaller class of about 15. 

This solves a few challenges: whittling down the amount of time teachers spend completing the DESSA, and making sure that an adult who knows the students well is answering detailed questions about the students’ behaviors, outlooks, and abilities. 

The results are then analyzed by the counseling team, solving one of the biggest challenges Soares said she faced when they first implemented the DESSA: what to do with all that data. 

She estimates there are 14 people on the counseling team, with a guidance counselor, social worker, college advisors, multiple deans, and a stable of interns from local universities.

Team members examine the results for any biases or outliers. Soares said sometimes teachers rate all their students as struggling or, conversely, report that they’re all doing exceptionally well. Neither is helpful because it’s not likely to be the case. So the team crosses the results with what they know about each student individually and collaborates with teachers to decide which skills students need to work on, or where they’re already strong. 

With the results, which get fed into a color-coded dashboard, the counseling team builds small groups of students. They intentionally pair students who struggle with those who excel on the same skills, hoping they learn from each other. 

“Sometimes, us as adults, we’re not always as relatable,” said Jennifer Jackson Robbins, a school counselor at the school. “But when you have a peer saying, ‘This is what I’ve experienced, this is how I handled it — or this is how I wish I had handled it,’ I think that speaks louder to students.” 

They meet during “learning lab” – essentially a study hall period that Soares created this year to allow students room to work independently, a skill many had to strengthen while learning remotely last year, and one that Soares doesn’t want students to lose before heading off to college when it will be valuable. The period also creates a space for students to work on social-emotional learning skills without missing valuable instruction time in their core subjects.

The small groups come together for about 30 minutes once a week, for five to eight weeks at a time. The university interns play a pivotal role, leading the small groups with the guidance of a curriculum and the professionals on the school counseling team. 

Support also comes from the Urban Assembly network. Frame, the director of social-emotional learning, has a team of specialists who visit schools, lead training sessions, and help principals sort through the information collected through the DESSA.

Data-driven approach

When Robbins thinks about the value of the small groups, she thinks about one student who has been working alongside her peers on decision-making skills. At the start of the year, the student would leave class or refuse to sit in her seat, prompting a flood of emails to Robbins from the girl’s teachers. Those emails are fewer now.  

Marni Brand, a social worker at the school, thinks about other students who have gone from not being able to make eye contact with their classmates to planning senior events. 

Before using the DESSA, knowing whether the counseling team was having an impact often meant relying on these kinds of anecdotes. Trying to figure out who needed help meant pulling bits of data from everywhere – attendance records, discipline logs, referrals from teachers. 

Now, they can glance at a dashboard and cross the data gleaned from the questionnaires with what they know about students. The DESSA is re-administered multiple times a year to track progress. 

“For so long it was like, ‘Are we helping people? How do we know?’” Brand said. “For us, the value is seeing the way your work is impacting students.”

Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at cveiga@chalkbeat.org.

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