Goodyear Elementary School

Goodyear Elementary School Principal Oatanisha Dawson, left, looks on as first-grade teacher Ann Humes goes over an assignment with her class Monday.

A recently launched political action committee in Glynn County hopes to make social-emotional learning a standard practice in Georgia’s schools.

“LetUSLead” is a nonpartisan, state-based PAC that aims to make social-emotional learning a campaign issue by identifying, recruiting and educating candidates who will support the creation of SEL curriculums.

Social-emotional learning teaches students skills, attitudes and knowledge to understand and manage their emotions, have positive relationships with others and make responsible decisions.

Glynn County resident Alyssa Thomas founded the PAC, which hosted its launch event on St. Simons Island April 3.

LetUSLead will work to elect candidates who will make SEL curriculums a state requirement.

“Our goal is to make this a campaign issue, a policy issue and ultimately an educational tenet,” Thomas said. “The more people that expect this from their candidates, the better chance we have at electing someone that believes in this.”

Goodyear Elementary is the first school in Glynn County to pilot a social-emotional curriculum this year. The school’s principal Oatanisha Dawson spoke at the PAC’s launch event.

The school trained its teachers this year on how to help students regulate their emotions and how to educate students on the parts of the brain that influence emotional responses.

“Our community has seen this as a need for some time now,” Dawson said Monday. “… We’re going to slowly integrate the social-emotional learning with academics in just a few years. It’s a definite need, and we’re calling everyone to attention to this need. We want everyone to be aware of it.”

Many students experience trauma outside of school that affects their ability to learn in the classroom, Dawson said. Goodyear’s new curriculum aims to raise teachers’ awareness about the problems with which many students walk into school every morning.

“We can’t be naive about it, and we can’t ignore it,” Dawson said.

Ann Humes, a first grade teacher at Goodyear, said she teaches her students breathing techniques to calm themselves and how to take their pulse when they’re worked up. She also teaches them about the biology of the brain to help them understand and regulate their emotions.

Humes, who has been teaching for 28 years, said she’s become more aware of the need for this kind of curriculum through the pilot this year.

“It makes me as a teacher more aware,” she said. “… (The students) need to know they are the ones in control.”

Research from CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), a national organization that aims to advance SEL programs, shows that these curriculums boost academic performance, increase student interest in learning, improve behavior and improve school climate.

Only three percent of public school students in K-12 in America have access to social-emotional learning throughout their school years, Thomas said. LetUSLead is aiming to change that.

Since the PAC’s launch, Thomas said she’s seen interest from the community.

“Now that I’ve had the first event, I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback and I’ve gotten a lot of people offering to have events in their homes and further that outreach,” she said.

Thomas, a south Florida native, moved two years ago to St. Simons Island from Washington, D.C., where she worked for five years as a lobbyist.

“When I moved here and I had a chance to reassess my career … I realized that nobody was really educating communities, educating candidates and raising money for candidates that believe in social-emotional learning,” she said.

Thomas then began working to get LetUSLead off the ground, forming the PAC’s board of directors and getting a sense of the political climate in the area.

The PAC’s goal is to make social-emotional learning a state requirement by supporting candidates who push for that change.

Social-emotional education gives students the skill sets that are vital for a successful future workforce, Thomas said.

“The labor market expects these skills,” she said. “They’re soft skills, they’re leadership skills, they’re human skills. And we’re getting to the point where we need more people to learn it, not just people who are privileged enough to be in private schools or charter schools.”

There’s a growing skills gap, she said, that social-emotional learning can address.

“Underemployment is a huge issue while we’re trying to rebuild an economy and stay ahead of the curve,” she said. “Our generation was the group that missed the STEM, and everybody pushed STEM really, really hard for the last 10 years and that’s great. But if we don’t want to miss the next skills gap, this is what we need to be focusing on.”

The next step for LetUSLead is to continue to spread awareness and to begin fundraising to support its mission, she said.

“In order to directly support candidates and indirectly support their campaigns, whether that’s get out the vote or educating their communities, we need to raise money,” Thomas said.

Increasing access to social-emotional learning will take buy-in from entire communities, she said.

“We’ve all heard it takes a village. It’s just as true in this instance,” she said. “When you want something to be successful, your students have to buy in, your teachers have to buy in, the partners, those that are funding it. Everybody has to understand what it is we’re doing and what the goal is.”

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