Recognized as the fastest improving school district in the state of Tennessee, Hamilton County Schools has invested deeply in building school climate and culture through integrated student supports.
In Hamilton County, a dedicated SEL coach works with students, teachers and staff in each of their seven learning communities. The district has a vision to create individualized plans for every student, and serves as a model for other Tennessee districts hoping to develop the whole child and build adult capacity to model life skills.
In search of a way to elevate stakeholder voices, better understand student needs, and provide effective, data-driven Tier 1 interventions, the district partnered with Panorama for social-emotional learning measurement.
We sat down with Patricia Russell, director of social emotional learning and K-12 school counseling at Hamilton County Schools, to learn how the district supports the whole child with Panorama—as well as considerations for other districts who are just starting out with this work.
Supporting Students Holistically at Hamilton County Schools
Patricia Russell: When we think about the academic side of the work, there are established structures that have existed for years. We have standardized testing and academic interventions that help us measure and support student achievement.
But when we started to think about the non-academic side of the work, what systems and programs do we offer to support students? How are we proactively helping a student who slept in a car the night before an exam? How are we evaluating the sense of belonging of a student who transferred to a new school due to the divorce of their parents? A need to better understand these factors was a driving force for us to partner with Panorama.
We can’t miss the basic needs of our students. We talk a lot about Maslow’s Hierarchy in this context. Do our students feel like they belong? Are their social and emotional needs being met? Do they have health concerns that we are aware of and dealing with? What is their family life like? Can they bring their full selves to school and achieve their potential academically? Knowing the answers to these types of questions is what truly educating the whole child is all about.
At Hamilton County Schools, we have started to look more intentionally at non-academic supports ourselves and ask ourselves: What do we have in place to measure and understand the whole child? What systems do we need to find those individuals who aren’t receiving Tier 3 supports and might be slipping through the cracks?
With Panorama for Social-Emotional Learning, we can measure our students’ perceptions of their strengths and some areas that they need to work on. We can also capture additional feedback both from our teachers as well from families. Sending these surveys home to families is one avenue through which we can engage caregivers as true partners.
Addressing a Need for Collaboration and Tracking Across the District
Last year, the SEL Department learned a lot of lessons about the collaborative aspect of the work. Partnering with district and school leaders more cohesively emerged as a crucial (yet challenging) dynamic; we are not in school buildings every single day and needed a way to understand what they were observing. Similarly, we needed to connect with teachers, counselors, and other staff doing the work and really lean on their feedback and input.
Another key learning for us has been about tracking. We realized that we needed to make sure we were measuring and continuously monitoring student needs.
Partnering with Panorama allowed us to get specific about what we should be measuring. Now, much of our work to implement integrated student supports is centered around the topics and questions that we ask them through Panorama’s surveys.
We also implemented a new structure: for every school to have a “Leadership Team” (LT) for supporting students. Each LT consists of counselors, nurses, administrators, and lead teachers from the school. They meet together on a regular basis to discuss students’ strengths and needs. We also have sub-committees that work with the LTs to follow-up on specific questions or ideas. Because the work is so complex, we wanted to close all communication gaps and create structures to optimize collaboration.
Additionally, our district works closely with our County Major, Jim Coppinger, and community partners through the Children's Cabinet, a collective group of business and educational executive leaders collaborating at a high level to create equitable opportunities for students and close learning gaps. The Children's Cabinet is inspired by Harvard's By All Means Consortium, and supported by their Education Redesign Lab.
"Partnering with Panorama allowed us to get specific about what we should be measuring. Now, much of our work to implement integrated student supports is centered around the topics and questions that we ask them through Panorama’s surveys."
Moving From Understanding Student Data to Taking Action
When we started to examine our survey results (from the fall of 2020), one finding that stood out was students self-reported relatively low in terms of their emotion regulation skills. We saw this across grades 3-12.
The data from Panorama surveys has helped us think critically about the way we are using resources in our buildings and consider different, new ways to build our students’ capacity for emotion regulation. The goal is to utilize these survey insights to provide data-driven interventions at the tier 1 level to build their soft skills.
For example: when we think about our social workers or our school nurses, are we equipping them with the skills and tools they need to model emotion regulation for students? Are they able to help students label and process emotions that are stemming from some of the things they see and hear at home, on the news, or in school?
Our ultimate goal is for our work with our assessment data to lead to the district-wide implementation of “student success planning profiles.” In two years, we hope to have an individualized plan for every student that both leverages assets-based thinking while also identifying the supports that they need.
"The data from Panorama surveys has helped us think critically about the way we are using resources in our buildings and consider different, new ways to build our students’ capacity for emotion regulation."
Leadership Buy-In and Building Adult Capacity
The support of leadership when it comes to these types of whole child initiatives cannot be understated. We have a superintendent (Dr. Bryan Johnson) who knows the value of developing the whole child and a deputy superintendent (Dr. Nakia Towns) who truly champions this work. Their teams have led the charge to implement integrated student supports and helped to partner with the SEL Department to create structures and resources to equitably support our students. We could not do this without their leadership and sponsorship.
Without the support and leadership of our superintendents, Hamilton County Schools would not be close to where we are today on our SEL journey.
We are also focusing on building the capacity of adults for social-emotional learning and self-care. We plan to administer adult SEL and well-being surveys through Panorama this fall to ensure that teachers and leaders (alongside the students they serve) are developing their own soft skills and self-care techniques.
Our mission is not for students to graduate by simply meeting academic standards. We want to be developing the whole student so that when they graduate, they are prepared socially, emotionally, and academically to be successful in college and beyond.