Love: The New Wave in Education Reform

The intended outcomes of the American public educational system have drastically evolved over the last 400 years. Originally, public schools were designed to prepare poor white students for the labor force. Native Americans, Africans and other immigrants were not considered citizens and as a result were not factored into the construct of the public education system. White families that could afford better options sent their children to private schools to get an education and prepare them for professional careers. The original public educational system was never designed with students of color in mind, nor was it meant to create independent thinkers and entrepreneurs or teach from a culturally inclusive curriculum. Fast-forward to modern day, and educational systems across this nation still operate from the remnants of these foundationally dysfunctional principles. Inequity in educational options has become one of many active and ever-changing social justice fights of our time.

Soldiers on the frontline of education reform have bravely put forth innovative methodologies for delivering instruction and modifying traditional educational environments, school types, programmatic focus, etc. The demand for education reform has largely been born from the glaring disparity in the quality of public educational options provided to impoverished communities, largely communities of color. The results of these approaches have varied, with some excelling but others failing to do much better than provide more subpar options alongside traditional failing schools. However, recent research developments have identified one area that has been lost or is often overlooked in the rush to provide viable options: the development of social-emotional skills in children.

Social-emotional skills, largely known as “soft skills,” are not necessarily a new concept. However, there has been a growing awareness around this idea of developing and integrating the development of social-emotional skills throughout a child’s development. Stated plainly, how can we expect a 5-year-old child who has experienced a traumatic event at home to stand in line quietly and pay attention intently all day? How do we expect a child that is worried or afraid to learn? In its simplest form, social-emotional learning acknowledges the application of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to our still-developing children. Our children do not come to school as fully regulated adults in little bodies; they require molding and development. That molding will happen regardless of whether their surroundings are loving and nurturing or harmful and degrading. But the most powerful fact in all of this is that social-emotional skills can be developed no matter what environmental factors have shaped a child’s foundational beginnings, regardless of the child’s age.

So what are social-emotional skills? The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning has defined the five core competencies of social-emotional learning as:

Self-awareness. The ability to effectively identify and express thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Self-management. The ability to regulate emotions, thoughts and feelings. Identifiable as impulse control, discipline and how one organizes themselves.

Social awareness. Awareness of other people’s thoughts, feelings and emotions. Showing empathy and respect for others.

Relationship skills. The ability to collaborate, work with a team and establish and maintain healthy respectful relationships.

Responsible decision-making. Evaluating situations, reflecting on responsible responses and thinking through the repercussions of an action.

The development of these core skills across a number of national studies has produced average academic gains of 11 percentile points. Children develop the skills needed to accurately voice what they’re feeling, and the adults in the school building create the environment that ensures the child feels safe and respected when expressing thoughts and feelings. Successful SEL implementation in schools directly correlates to a decrease in behavioral infractions, hence breaking the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline. The implementation of an SEL curriculum teaches children lifelong skills for success by honoring their voices and advocating for themselves and others. For teachers, an SEL curriculum creates the space for relationships, even for those who aren’t innately drawn to teaching from a place of love. From this space, learning becomes possible, and outcomes become limitless.

When boiled down, at the core of SEL is the simple concept of love. SEL is how teachers, administrators and school support personnel actively display their vested interest in improving our children’s well-being and supporting them in reaching their highest potential. The concept of SEL is so simple, and yet has the capability to be incredibly transformative if and when it is integrated into the entire culture of schools and teaching practices.

Perhaps the most powerful and revolutionary educational reform initiative is, simply, love.

Education Leadership in Chicago Takes Another Step Forward as Executives Tamara Prather and Rito Martinez Join The Surge Institute

The Surge Institute, founded in 2014 in Chicago in response to a dearth of diverse leadership at the decision-making tables within education, takes another step forward in addressing the issues of race and class in urban education by hiring a Chicago Executive Director and new Vice President of National Programs.
Tamara Prather will join the leadership team on November 18, 2016, as the Chicago Executive Director. Tamara brings to bear over 17 years of combined experience in the education and private sectors, at corporate bodies as diverse as GE Capital, Kraft Foods, Chicago Public Schools and A Better Chicago. Her addition means added focus on brand building and strategy in Chicago, and will allow Surge Founder and President Carmita Semaan to address the broader needs for Surge nationally.

Rito Martinez succeeds Erica Harris, the organization’s founding Vice President of Programs, in a new national programs role — setting the expanded vision and direction for the content of the Surge Fellowship as well as the design of the Fellowship’s core curriculum. Martinez was an award-winning teacher and founding principal of Social Justice High School before he transitioned into adult learning, leadership development and executive coaching, which has informed his work for the past half decade. He began with the team in early October 2016. “As the founding VP of Programs, Erica Harris’s design of the Surge Fellowship created a powerful legacy upon which Rito is well-poised to build,” stated Carmita Semaan.

Both Prather and Martinez have personal connections to The Surge Institute’s mission. “I have followed the work of Surge and continue to be inspired by the passion and sense of purpose of the organization and the significant progress being made. I am honored to lead the organization through this exciting next phase of growth and impact in Chicago,” said Prather. “For black and brown leaders it is imperative that one examine issues of identity, race and ethnicity as a means of understanding both our strengths and areas of development. This vision of The Surge Fellowship resonates with my core,” shares Martinez.

Semaan is very pleased with the expanding team, which also includes Program and Development Coordinator Sandra Rush and Executive Assistant Maurae Gilbert McCants. “The impact of our fellows and alums has been tremendous in youth-serving organizations across Chicago, and Surge receives local and national recognition for our work in preparing, supporting, connecting and elevating these emerging leaders of color. We will continue to respond to demand as the need for diverse and connected leaders is great. This growth requires discipline and a commitment to continuous improvement — two of the foundational values of our organization. Our team will continue to Surge forward with these commitments to our community.”

About Surge
The Surge Institute broadly addresses issues of race and class in urban education through leadership development, technical assistance and advocacy. The Surge Fellowship develops high-potential talent within education to create the pipeline of influential education leaders of color. This network transforms status quo systems and approaches in education by sharing ownership of the change efforts, engaging communities in defining and working toward success, serving as role models for young people to pursue roles with influence and risk, and accessing financial capital and power brokers to develop new solutions. Learn more about how you can #LeadTheSurge at