SEL Can be Transformational for Alternative Schools

SEL Can be Transformational for Alternative Schools

Here’s how our 50-student alternative high school in Wyoming is building trust, graduating more students, and cultivating more college-and workforce-ready youngsters with the 7 Mindsets SEL curriculum.

By Ceatriss Wall and Elisa Harrison, originally published in the October, 2021 issue of Equity & Access

Students come to our school for many different reasons, but mostly it’s because traditional high school just isn’t a good fit for them. A Title I school (based on socioeconomic status), Pathfinder High School serves about 50 students in grades 9-12 and has four core teachers and one special education teacher. Our district borders the Wind River Indian Reservation and we have Native American students who attend our school and/or our district.

Five years ago, when we joined the Pathfinder team, we knew we had our work cut out for us. For many of our students, school has always been thought as something that the law requires—and not something that they really want to do or partake in. Many of these children think there’s just no good reason to be here. Knowing this, we spent a year figuring out our school’s goals, who our students were, and what their needs were.

Our students come to school with big shoulders, and a lot of times they’re carrying the weight of the world on those shoulders. Academically speaking, many of them had difficulties functioning and focusing on their work. They just had too much going on in their personal, family, and social lives to be able to concentrate on school and academics took the back burner in their lives.

Wanting to help turn that tide, we learned about the 7 Mindsets social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum at a community event. We immediately saw it as a resource that could give our kids a chance to not be victims, and to have both voice and choice in their learning and life in general. We started using the 7 Mindsets curriculum that year and started to see instant benefits. Over time, that list of “wins” has only continued to grow.

Here are the top four ways the 7 Mindsets curriculum has changed our school:

1. Higher graduation rates

Our graduation rates have gone from 58% to 77% since we started using our SEL curriculum just 30 minutes per week for every student in grades 9-12. The first year that we used 7 Mindsets, we did our surveys and research and learned that students had the most growth with the “Live to Give” mindset, which teaches us that abundance in one’s life is a cycle, and that to get love, respect, and financial security, we must learn to give those things. This year, we’ve seen the most growth within the “100% Accountable,” mindset, which states that we are not victims of our past, our future is not predetermined, and our lives are what we choose from this moment onward. At the beginning of the school year students take a pretest and then take the same test at the end of the year regarding the 7 Mindsets and how the mindsets apply to their lives. 93% of the students reported that they had a positive experience and 60% said that they absolutely loved it and learned from it. It’s helping our kids assume accountability for their lives, graduate from high school, and go on to be successful in college and/or the workforce.

2. Creating new opportunities for students

The payoff for that 30 minutes a week of SEL has been significant. It’s led to us being able to do all sorts of very cool things, like building relationships with teachers and project-based learning in the classrooms. Our kids are going to college, attending summer camps, and exploring opportunities that they never would have dreamed of applying for previously. For our class of 2021, 10 out of our 14 graduates were enrolled in college by graduation. They had their class schedules selected, their FAFSA forms filled out, and they were ready to rock and roll. Another four students were ready to hit the workforce out of a class that previously would have only posted a 58% graduation rate.

3. Building trust in the classroom

We use our SEL curriculum for 30 minutes a week with every student. We don’t teach everyone at once. Instead, we break the sessions into classes and allow the kids to build trust with the specific group of students that they’re interacting with. This helps them be vulnerable because the conversations that they have after discussing the mindsets can be both tough and emotional. If you have it with a group of 50 students in a gym, it’s just not going to have the same impact as having that group of kids you’re with each week sharing with each other and being vulnerable. Even the student who initially sat at the back of the class with his or her arms crossed, determined not to participate, is taking part in those vulnerable, trust-based conversations by the end of the school year.

4. No one thinks of it as a place where the “bad kids” go

In our little town, Pathfinder High School was always looked upon as the place where the “bad kids” go when they can no longer attend traditional high schools. That sentiment has totally changed. When we’re out in the community, people say, “Oh, I see that you’re from Pathfinder.” It’s a source of pride and strength for our staff and for the students. This year we’ve incorporated, “You’ve graduated” to the Main Street banners that we hang for our kids and their families. We’re now included in everything the traditional high school does, including a large billboard telling our students how grateful they were that they graduated or congratulating them. These are things that would have never happened just five years ago. In conjunction with the 7 Mindsets, our students are taught how to self-regulate emotions and feelings that can interfere with their daily academic learning. 100% of the students who attend our weekly Brain Change group, report that they understand why they can’t think clearly and how to change that. They use the regulation tools they have been taught, including the regulation room. 71% of the students who use the regulation room are ready to return to class after ten minutes and be productive in their academic classwork.

All students and their families experienced hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic, a traumatic event that made the social emotional welfare of our students more important than ever. With the 7 Mindsets’ focus on positivity and focus in our corner, we were able to keep helping students focus on what they can do and how they can positively change their lives. The fact that 95% have told us that they love the SEL curriculum and think we should keep using it is proof enough for us.


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