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After spending over two decades working to advance racial equity in education through advocacy and philanthropy, I took a new job last year that has allowed me to see this work from the inside out. As executive director of an organization that partners closely with hundreds of New York City public schools to promote equity, I now have a revealing window into what it really takes to build a school environment that supports and honors all of our young people.

Throughout my years as a funder at a national philanthropic institution that advocated for education equity, my colleagues and I worked to counter the mainstream education narrative, which insisted that standards-based education was the key to student success. We challenged the culture of “teaching to the test” in which schools focus their time and resources on getting kids to score well on standardized tests rather than on giving them the support they need to thrive.

We always stressed that pushing to meet “standards” without such support will never lead to the academic results we all care about. We advocated for the funding of universal high-quality early childhood education, social and emotional learning opportunities within schools, mental health providers, asthma clinics, after-school programming and alternatives to punitive discipline policies. These are all essential to ensuring that each and every child has a true opportunity to learn.

But in my new role leading a New York City-based nonprofit that works intensively inside schools, I see more than ever that in addition to these many resources, we need something else: love.

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My organization works closely with school staff to change the cultures of schools so that they are supporting achievement, not just demanding it. We work with thousands of teachers and administrators in their quests to promote social-emotional learning and restorative practices. Our goal is to enable educators to create lasting, supportive environments in which children feel they are loved, seen for their unique gifts and cultures, and have a deep sense of the “belonging” called for by John A. Powell of U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

The most successful educators know that students can only experience deep learning when they have trusting, respectful and supportive relationships with their teachers and peers.

All of this takes much deeper work than I had envisioned. Making the transformation to whole-school equity requires new frameworks and tools to change the ways that administrators support teachers, the ways that teachers support young people, and the ways that young people support themselves and their peers.

We have scientific evidence that our approaches lead to an improved sense of well-being and social and emotional competency for students, improved academic performance and a more supportive classroom climate. We are now working with researchers to see what effects our holistic approach has on attendance for both teachers and students, as well as on graduation rates and long-term outcomes, especially for students of color.

How do our staff foster a climate of trust and community-building? For us, the work typically includes a minimum of five days of training for educators in social and emotional learning, restorative practices and equitable classroom practices; follow-up coaching for educators; support for school leaders in school-wide planning; weekly circles for all students to foster a sense of community and to build social and emotional skills through age-appropriate curricula; and adult “courageous conversations” on race, among other things.

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A foundational element of our approach is the circle process, which we use with both young people and adults. As Marieke van Woerkom, a senior staff developer with our organization, recently wrote, restorative circles are more than just a positive alternative to punitive forms of discipline. They are “equally important in proactively building the relationships and skills students need to support one another and collectively address the challenges they face.”

The most successful educators know that students can only experience deep learning when they have trusting, respectful and supportive relationships with their teachers and peers. The field of brain science tells us this as well. In her call for culturally responsive schools, Dr. Zaretta Hammond writes, “There is a reason that collectivist cultures focus on relationships. The brain is wired to scan continuously for social and physical threats except when we are in positive relationships.” Only when the brain’s amygdala stays calm can the prefrontal cortex focus on higher-order thinking and learning.

Some readers may grimace a bit at the notion that love is a necessary ingredient in public education. But as I’ve visited schools, met with principals and listened to teachers and our own staff talk about this work, I’ve come to believe that we won’t see the academic gains we’re looking for until and unless we offer all of our students the love and support they need.

Doing this work is profoundly important, but it’s difficult. Unfortunately, most of our schools of education still don’t prepare teachers to skillfully integrate social and emotional learning, restorative circles or equitable practices into their daily work.

If over the past two decades, philanthropy had funneled the billions of dollars it has spent on standards-based education toward supports-based education instead — including both resources and love — I suspect our academic outcomes would be far better than they are today, and the racial gaps in academic outcomes would be greatly diminished, if not erased.

The culture of quick fixes and short-term growth metrics led us astray and kept us from seeing the deeper cultural and systemic changes needed to achieve fundamentally different outcomes. We hope that education leaders and policymakers will commit to developing an education system that gives principals, educators, parents and students the support they need to create schools in which all students can thrive. In public education, that’s what love looks like.

(Acknowledgments to singer Al Green and John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education.)

This story about love and happiness in education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Cassie Schwerner is executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, and was senior vice president of national partnerships at the Schott Foundation for Public Education.

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