Homeless Students Come Into School With Above-Average Social-Emotional Skills, Study Finds

The Monarch School in San Diego—a public school that serves homeless students and their families who live in the area—has been providing support in academics, social-emotional learning, and life skills for those students for more than three decades.

The K-12 school operates under the San Diego County Office of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools educational program, and is a public-private partnership between the county and the nonprofit Monarch School Project. On average, students attend Monarch for 11 months, but many students are enrolled for years and even attend until graduation, according to its website.

When KishaLynn Elliott first started working at the school she was in charge of college and career development programming. But while students regularly receive feedback on their academic performance, “there wasn’t really any way to show the impact of what else they were learning in terms of life skills or social-emotional growth—and Monarch School does all of that work here,” she said.

To better understand how the school is helping students in their social-emotional development, Monarch School partnered with the University of San Diego’s Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education to conduct a research study assessing the social-emotional learning of 3rd through 12th grade students from 2016-2019. The results were publicized in May 2023.

The Jacobs Institute and Monarch School are also conducting a companion research study to assess students’ social-emotional learning from 2020-2023, but those results aren’t ready, yet.

In a Zoom interview with Education Week, Elliott—now the vice president of operations and evaluation for Monarch—discussed the study’s findings, why this matters, and what advice she has for other school and district leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KishaLynn Elliott, the vice president of operations and evaluation at Monarch School.

How did the study measure students’ social-emotional learning?

It started by looking at the social-emotional learning programs and opportunities that Monarch provides and figuring out what social-emotional factor it connected to. We came up with about 12 different social-emotional learning factors that we decided to measure in our study, and we put those factors together in a survey that is administered to our students in grades three through 12 twice a year—in the fall and then after about six months, which is the amount of time we determined it takes for us to have a measurable or tangible impact in the implementation of our programming, but also based on how long students will be a part of our community.

[The 12 factors are: restorative mindset, social awareness, belonging, emotional regulation, school value, grit, social navigation, self-esteem, agency, collaboration, student engagement, and school safety.]

Why is it important to measure these skills?

These are the skills that are really going to impact whether or not they’re able to thrive in life and potentially break the cycle of homelessness. I’m not saying academics aren’t important. I’m just saying that we’re teaching more than reading and math, and we should be held accountable to being as effective on the SEL side as we are on the academic side.

What were the study’s findings?

We found that across all of these factors, students were averaging about 3.5 out of 5 [on a scale in which 1 is poor and 5 is good]. When you think you’re going to be looking for growth, you’re expecting to see lower scores when you start and then you’re starting to see growth over time. Instead what we saw was that students were already coming in [to the school] quite high across most of these research-based factors. And they are either sustaining or growing from there, which is just a wonderful story to tell about the capacity for social-emotional learning of this population.

We thought we were going to be talking about growing social-emotional learning in this population from a deficit place, and now what we’re learning is that we’re actually talking about sustaining an already high social-emotional learning.

Why might this student population already have above-average scores on SEL skills before they come into the school?

These students are coming into their classrooms with a good amount of social navigation skills because of what they have to do just to survive when they’re not here. They already have a good amount of grit from having literally been worn down by the circumstances and conditions. Perseverance—just the fact that they showed up and were in class on that day, they overcame those obstacles to get here to learn.

But they are able to come into this building every day and work with this team of teachers and staff. All they have to worry about once they get here is to receive the learning, to be safe, and to grow. And that has amazing benefits on their self-esteem, on their outcomes. But it’s not because we did it to them or for them. It’s because they already had it. They brought it in the doors and we work together with them to sustain or to grow them even stronger.

What advice would you give other school or district leaders?

There are unhoused students sitting in almost every public school classroom in the nation and so what we are planning to do is to scale our [whole-child] approach. Monarch School has a proven approach to helping these students thrive in terms of their social-emotional learning capacity, and there are definite correlations to academics in that work.

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