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Emotional Intelligence efforts of Bridgeport Public Schools get international spotlight

May 9, 2019

Educators will gather halfway across the world next week at a conference in Belgium to learn how Bridgeport Public School’s embrace of social and emotional learning is starting to pay dividends.

Carrie Ramanauskas, a former classroom teacher and now the coordinator of Social and Emotional Learning for the district, and Ashley Blanchard, a research analyst for the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition, have been invited to present at the May 15-17 International Institute for Restorative Practices conference in Kortrijk, Belgium.

The grant-funded trip is aimed at showing how school climate can improve through a combination of learning to recognize and control emotions and discipline strategies that are less punitive and more restorative.

“One without the other doesn’t work as well,” Ramanauskas said the district has come to realize. “We are going to show how our movement here is really transforming things.”

Together, the school district is starting to see improvements in school climate and a reduction in school suspensions and expulsions.

This spring the district reported an increase in reported bullying instances, but largely because of an intensive campaign by the school board and superintendent to encourage recognition and acknowledgment of what some consider a bullying epidemic.

Out-of-school suspensions, meanwhile, have declined each of the past five years. In 2013-14 there were 4,783, while in 2017-18, there were 3,008. While in-school suspensions began climbing during that period, that number too has declined in the past two years. Last year it stood at 3,915.

“We feel the (out-of-school and in-school) suspensions are going down legitimately at schools with trained educators,” Ramanauskas said, and not reduced by ignoring or under-reporting disruptions.

The district’s effort to improve learning by factoring student well-being into the equation began in 2013 when former Schools Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz brought Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence to the district.

Yale’s RULER program — to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate emotions — began at Wilbur Cross School, and then expanded. Funded largely by the Tauck Family Foundation, the program involves teacher, staff and parent training, visuals such as color-coded mood meters to help students identify feelings, and charters that classes draft as aspirational documents to live by.

“Beyond differentiated instruction in our children, there are differentiations in emotionalities,” said Janet Brown Clayton, an assistant superintendent in the district.

Teachers are trained to consider elements going on in the lives of students they may not otherwise have considered.

“That way they can better understand the student in front of them,” Clayton said.

RULER is now in all city elementary schools and is spreading to the high school level. There, the district combines RULER with restorative justice practices which seek not to punish but solve problems by promoting accountability and dialogue.

“With RULER alone, it seemed like it was missing something,” Ramanauskas said. “Likewise, just restorative practice without RULER, there were skills missing.”

Two students brought together to work out differences need to be able to label their emotions, she said.

Restorative practices is an effort pushed by Jo Ann Freiberg, a school climate specialist with the state Department of Education.

In Bridgeport, the efforts look different depending on the school. Some schools have a Student Ambassador program to train students who in turn train classmates in social and emotional learning.

At Harding, there is a climate specialist who talks with kids kicked out of class and a “refocus” room, the goal being to avoid in-school suspension and get them back in class. Assistant Principal Kathy Silver said the program works and she hopes funding for the position continues.

“Prior to refocus rooms, all these students would be sitting in an ISS room,” Ramanauskas said.

Central High, meanwhile, has a “mindfulness” room that works on the same premise of getting kids back to class. Bridgeport Military Academy is looking into a room to help students calm down.

Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson called the district’s invitation to the conference an acknowledgment of the great work she said the city school system has done in advancing social and emotional learning.

Ramanauskas hopes by going, she can share what the district is doing, learn from others, and put Bridgeport on the map in a positive way, she said.

“A lot of time, Bridgeport gets really bad narrative,” Ramanauskas said. Sure more funding would help, but she said many amazing things happen in the district. “I can not name a school (in Bridgeport) where there are not awesome things happening.”

This coming year, the district’s Social and Emotional Learning effort starts a new three- to five-year grant funding cycle. More students and adults will be trained.

lclambeck@ctpost.com; twitter/lclambeck

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