South Carolina’s public education system has, unfortunately, long been defined by stark racial and socioeconomic inequities and injustices. From blatant segregation laws in our history to subtler contemporary policies that enable some schools to thrive while others languish, all too often our students experience a system that fundamentally disadvantages students of color and those from low-income families.
While the state’s mandate for education highlights the low expectations held for South Carolina students — it calls for schools to provide a “minimally adequate” education, a measurement that is open to wide interpretation — the fact is that some schools do not have the resources to provide even that quality of education to their students.
Schools and districts across the state face a plethora of challenges, from teacher shortages and short-lived reform efforts to ineffective accountability models and outdated coursework and requirements that don’t align with workplace needs. But a glaring issue is that these challenges tend to be magnified, and sometimes insurmountable, in the schools that are in need of the most support. As the Post and Courier series on the failings of the state education system details, it is low-income and minority students in our most vulnerable communities, such as North Charleston, Orangeburg and Sumter, who are most likely to receive an inadequate education that leaves them poorly prepared for their future.
While we recognize that reforming the entire public education system is not immediately possible, it is vital that our community stands together to support our students and schools through high-impact strategies. One of the most effective ways to mitigate the persistent inequities is to provide broad, equitable access to social emotional learning opportunities and programming.
SEL benefits all students, but it is especially valuable for students in under-resourced, vulnerable communities who are less likely than their peers from wealthier areas to develop social emotional skills at home. SEL has been shown, time and again, to improve academic performance, classroom behavior and the competencies that students need to succeed in the workforce.
What is more, SEL-focused training and professional development for teachers enables them to better support students’ development of social emotional skills, and contributes to improved school environments that better facilitate academic progress. In many ways, social emotional skills are the foundation for success in school and in life, for students and adults alike.
SEL is not a silver bullet for all of the challenges facing our students, families and schools. However, it shows promise as a way to move our students and education system in the right direction — toward greater equity and higher potential for success.
As members of the community, we must advocate for our young people and ensure all students receive the comprehensive academic and social emotional supports they need and deserve. Community-based organizations, from after school programs and summer camps to tutoring programs and sports teams, are key in making this change happen, but the community must demand that it occurs.
Parents and neighbors must call upon their local schools to prioritize SEL and partner with community-based organizations to provide enrichment programs before, during and after the school day, as well as during the summer, to supplement classroom time and provide a breadth of learning opportunities to students.
In turn, school and district leaders must work together to allocate resources, whether it be funding or space, to enable local groups in bringing programming that fosters SEL to more students.
The absence of meaningful state-level education reform in South Carolina to ameliorate the inequities that our schools face means that families, communities and grassroots organizations are, in effect, the only ones looking out for the future of our children. Partnerships among schools and community-based organizations — particularly in communities where schools and students have been harmed by the inequities of the state education system — are essential.
By providing opportunities otherwise unavailable through school-based resources alone, from SEL and academic supports to athletics and arts programming, partnerships can ensure that all students have access to an education that exceeds the bare minimum and instead enables them to thrive and soar toward their maximum potential.
Bridget Laird is chief executive officer of WINGS for Kids, a Charleston-based nationwide after-school program focused solely on bringing SEL to at-risk kids. Follow WINGS on Twitter at @wingsforkids.