Austin ISD seeing results from work on cultural proficiency, social-emotional learning


By Gabriella Beker

While Austin ISD is being recognized across the nation for its work in social-emotional learning and cultural proficiency, the real effect is in the classroom. 

“What we’ve noticed in the classrooms is that kids have a better sense of identity, but more than that, they feel that the classroom is an identity safe space for them where they can be their full selves,” said Sara Freund, social-emotional learning and cultural proficiency and inclusivity specialist. 

Freund’s remarks came during a panel discussion at the Gwinnett County Chamber’s 2021 Strategic Leadership Visit. This three-day conference brings government, business and education leaders together to learn about innovative programs across the country that are impacting positive change. 

The panel highlighted the integration of social-emotional learning and cultural proficiency and inclusiveness strategies. This combination aims to support students of all cultural backgrounds and teach emotional regulation and relationship-building skills.

Collaborating with the community
Panelists expressed the importance of working alongside students, families and community members. They said they worked with the community to identify problems and develop solutions that work with the community. To do this, they first had to identify the groups of people who had been left out of the process in years past.

“We had to rely on data to identify who is not being served,” said Joseph Allen, director of equity, leadership and planning. “Once we identified the groups we wanted to prioritize, we could bring them in as collaborative builders and partners—to not just sit at the table, but to be the co-builders of the table.”

This model of integrating feedback from marginalized communities has also been used to develop trainings for teachers and staff. Freund said that in the past two and a half years, their department has organized dozens of trainings with more than 10,000 collective participants, including both staff and community members.

“That’s really important with (Cultural Proficiency and Inclusivity),” Freund said. “That we are bringing everyone to the table, that we’re having these conversations, and that we’re not only talking about our own experiences but we’re hearing the experiences of other people, especially of the people we serve — our families and our students.”

In addition to collaboration, Equity Officer Stephanie Hawley emphasized the importance of accountability to the community. 

“We are accountable to the communities that are underserved,” Hawley said. “Our mission is to make sure that everybody who has been marginalized in the past, we are centralizing their needs.”

Leveraging leadership
When asked how the panelists seek support as they roll out new plans, Hawley said strong leadership is essential.

“Probably the most powerful thing our district has done is hire Dr. Stephanie Elizalde, because she gets this work,” Hawley said. “And we have a board that is very powerful, so when you have powerful leadership, they can stand up to the resistance.”

Tamey Williams-Hill, project director and equity and inclusion specialist, added that strong leadership is modeled by Hawley’s commitment to equity in Austin ISD as well.

“When [Dr. Hawley] was hired two years ago, she set out to talk to the community, and had focus groups, one-on-ones, dinners, coffees alone with 1,500 people,” Williams-Hill said. “Let’s be clear about that as we look at the scope of what an equity officer does and as one person, what that capacity can be.”

Measuring student success
After discussing what was necessary to undertake the work, the panelists addressed how the district measures success.

Statia Paschel, director of social-emotional learning and cultural proficiency and inclusivity, said that overall graduation rates increased from 89.7% in 2015 to 92.9% in 2021. She broke the data down further, adding that the graduation rate rose by 6% between 2015 and 2021 for African American students, by 3% for Hispanic students and by 2% for white students.

“Are we saying that the implementation of social-emotional learning and cultural proficiency and inclusivity was the only factor that led to that increase in graduation rates? No,” Paschel said. “But how could it not play a part?”

Ultimately, the success of Austin ISD’s social-emotional learning, cultural proficiency and inclusivity, and equity initiatives can’t always be measured with numbers.

According to Freund, the most profound change can be seen in the classroom. 

“We see students that are engaged,” she said. “We see that their racial and cultural identities are being uplifted and affirmed, we see co-creation happening where students are involved in the planning of what is happening in classrooms, and we see self-efficacy and agency.”