Leading the Way
Amid change and uncertainty, there are educators among us who are leading the way. Day in and day out, they are fully engaged in the challenging work of moving education forward. These educators are inspirational. They view disruptive change as an opportunity to reinvigorate our commitment to learning and push us toward innovation. The most valuable resource they bring to this work is often not crisp, concise answers, but rather the mindset necessary to respond to constantly changing circumstances and the willingness to lean into a future that is uncertain for the sake of the students they serve.
Leading the Way features conversations with some of these education leaders. Their experience, expertise, and commitment to students’ learning offers valuable insights and lessons learned as we all forge the path forward, with them leading the way.
For Debra Giacolone, All Learning is Social-Emotional
Many districts have identified the health and well-being of students and staff among their top priorities as schools reopen this fall. In Sarasota County Public Schools, the pandemic was not the catalyst that drove their commitment to social-emotional learning, rather it was the achievement gap.
Meet Debra Giacolone. She serves as the Executive Director of Student Support Services for Sarasota County Public Schools in Florida. Several years ago, like many districts across the country, Sarasota was looking for solutions to close the achievement gap. And as Debra explains, “I had the opportunity to co-chair a committee called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Through our study and work with the framework, I became convinced that by putting an intentional focus on social-emotional learning, we could definitely begin to close the achievement gap.” In fact, Debra was so confident that they could not only close the achievement gap but set the foundation so every student in Sarasota could achieve to their highest potential.
Sarasota had many programs and services available throughout the district--- character education, restorative strategies, positive behavior intervention plans---but there was a disconnect between the things they were doing. As Giacolone explains, “We aligned all of our initiatives into the social-emotional learning (SEL) framework provided by CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning). And once we were able to put this on paper and look at the big vision, we realized we had all the working parts to make a SEL implementation very successful in our district.”
It came with a lot of work. Yet, looking back, Debra recognizes that social-emotional learning was the glue that brought everything together. “We really wanted to cultivate an environment that fostered success---where every student and every staff member could come to school or to work every day and feel that they were supported in a positive learning environment. We knew that without that foundation, no matter how hard we worked on reading, and writing, and math, we would not be successful unless we cultivated an environment that fostered maximum
learning for every student---no matter their race, no matter their gender, no matter their socio-economic status. This was the foundation we needed.”
For Sarasota, the work began by engaging district stakeholders in open, candid, and honest conversations about their philosophies and beliefs. Every administrator participated in a book study discussing All Learning is Social and Emotional (Frey, Fisher, and Smith. ASCD. 2019.) and the summer leadership institute for administrators leading into the 2019-2020 school year was designed to foster that belief. “We started getting people excited about SEL,” Giacolone recalls. “On our very first professional development day of the year, we provided opportunities for every staff member to explore social-emotional learning based on their awareness and interests, and truly develop their knowledge as a professional in the field of education.”
Throughout that first year of implementation, Sarasota was committed to establishing this foundation. Then, in the Spring of 2020, schools closed and Giacolone was forced to quickly pivot. “We wanted to make sure the good work we were doing didn’t stop just because kids weren’t coming to school,” she said. Shifting from “what” to “how,” they leveraged relationships with other departments to look at things in a different way. “We began to ask---how can we deliver this foundation through virtual learning or teleservices or post resources on our website for teachers to integrate in their lessons? In addition, we had to foster the confidence of our staff members--- teachers, counselors, school psychologists, social workers...reminding them that they have the skill set; they have the expertise; they have the passion. They’ve been doing this work for a year or more. It’s just going to look a little bit different now.” In the end, Giacolone acknowledged, “We didn’t want to lose momentum. We realized that what we were doing was more important now than ever.”
Accordingly, staff members throughout the district---from teachers to administrators--- really rose to the occasion and did the best they could for every student, every day. “It was just unbelievable what we saw happening for our students, and for our families. It just brings me to tears when I think about how much we went through, how we persevered, and how resilient we all really are,” Giacolone commented.
As an educator, Giacolone describes herself as a lifelong learner. As she reflects on the past year and a half, Debra names three “silver linings” that serve as her inspiration.
- First and foremost, “We are smart people. We are caring people. We are educators through and through and no matter what’s thrown at us, we are going to find the strategies to make sure we’re going to reach our kids.”
- The staff members in Sarasota are better equipped with more tools in their toolbox, authentically and organically. They now know that when a student doesn’t respond to face-to-face counseling, or counseling in a small group, they have the option to consider teletherapy or telehealth services. When parents can’t make it to a meeting, they can Zoom-in or join a meeting on Microsoft Teams. “Without this crisis, we may have been complacent with some of our practices. Now, we’re more innovative than ever and we realize there is a solution to every problem that we have,” says Giacolone.
- Finally, there is nobody who escaped the pandemic without some type of impact, although the extent of the impact varied. Giacolone admits, “As we return to school for this upcoming year, there is some uncertainty. We don’t know exactly where everybody is going to be on the continuum. But I think the key word I take away is intentionality. We will be very intentional with the work, the strategies, and the supports we’re providing for our students and our staff as we move forward. We will be attuned to where our students and our staff are and be ready to respond with intentionality.”
As the new school year gets underway, Giacolone is clear. “It’s going to be really important that we focus on helping our students feel safe and foster an environment where they can learn and achieve. And we need to do the same for our staff. They need to feel safe, supported and in an environment where they can do what they do best---teach our children. This is the foundation of what learning should be. This is who we are at our core. We believe that this foundation is going to help every student in our district make academic gains.”
It is important work and, as the team in Sarasota has been saying for the past year, “We’re better together.” So, it would not surprise you to hear Debra Giacolone proclaim, “We’re ready. We’ve got this year moving forward. We can do this!”
Debra Giacolone recently spoke with Jean Sharp, who serves as the Chief Academic Officer for Apex Learning. On a personal note, Jean would like to extend her deepest thanks to Debra for sharing her story---the vision, strategies and the commitment that leads to the unrelenting pursuit to support all students in Sarasota on their pathway to their full potential. By recognizing that “all learning is social-emotional” Debra Giacolone is leading the way.