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When alpine ski racer Andrew Kurka won the gold and silver medals at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, a group of U.S. students half a world away were among his loudest fans, urging parents to let them stay up so they could “watch Andrew race on the TV.”

It wasn’t just because Kurka is a famous Olympic athlete or because he hails from Alaska, their home state. It’s because of the students’ personal relationship with Kurka. For an entire school year, he had been a mentor in their classroom, working virtually alongside the teacher and engaging with students on a personal level.

“The most letters and the most congratulations that I’ve ever gotten were from my classroom, and were from my champions,” Kurka said. The champions, as he calls the elementary school students he works with, are part of a program called Classroom Champions that pairs Olympians, Paralympians, student-athletes and professional athletes with students and teachers in high-poverty schools in the U.S. and Canada. At the heart of the program is its social- and emotional-learning-based curriculum and mentorship experience.

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Social and emotional learning, or SEL, emphasizes soft skills such as self-awareness, self-management, communication, social awareness, and decision-making. While social and emotional learning has become a buzzword of sorts in education circles, low-income and rural schools often face barriers to bringing in and trying innovative models due to lack of opportunity or funding.

That was one of the reasons U.S. Olympic gold medalist Steve Mesler co-founded Classroom Champions with his sister Leigh Parise, a senior research associate at MDRC, a nonprofit education and social policy research organization. When Mesler toured the country visiting classrooms and businesses during his time as an athlete with Team USA, he talked to students about fitness and goals, and to adults about leadership, persevering, and overcoming obstacles.

“I always felt like, why are we talking to our kids differently than we were talking to adults? Like, let’s give kids the credit that they can understand these concepts,” Mesler said.

Students paid attention when athletes like Mesler visited the classroom. Mesler and his sister wondered if there might be an opportunity to expand this model. The concept: use athlete volunteers to mentor students and teach kids the kinds of skills that many Olympians develop throughout their training – including goal-setting, self-discipline, resilience and perseverance. The two piloted the program during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where Mesler won gold in the four-man bobsled.

When they launched Classroom Champions the following year, Mesler and Parisi incorporated a fully developed SEL curriculum based on the nationally recognized structure established by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The aim of the curriculum, Mesler said, is to make SEL skills “operational” in a classroom setting. “What does it mean to help them build those skills? You can’t give a kid self-discipline, but how do you help them build those skills?”

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According to Mesler, the program is now being used in more than 2,000 schools. In an internal survey of program participants in the 2016-17 school year, 94 percent of teachers reported that Classroom Champions enabled them to better engage their students.

The athletes help deliver the SEL K-8 curriculum through monthly lessons covering goal-setting, emotions, community, perseverance, teamwork, feedback, healthy living, and leadership. The program includes resources in Spanish, hands-on activities, videos from the athlete mentors, and family outreach materials. Before offering the program in any classroom, volunteer athletes are trained on the curriculum and how to work with the students and teachers.

Jennifer Regruth, an elementary teacher in the small town of Seymour, Indiana, has been using Classroom Champions to engage her students since it first launched. She likes it because of its emphasis on life skills, which, she said, “kids will be using for the rest of their lives, that maybe they hadn’t come across and parents hadn’t talked about.”

Regruth said the athletes also inspire her own teaching. Back in October, Regruth and her Classroom Champion, blind Paralympian Lex Gillette, a silver-medalist in the long jump, challenged kids to think about something that prompted a strong emotion. The students wrote short stories, then discussed them on a video call with Gillette. Regruth said this helped her students think about how to talk about and handle difficult emotions, such as sadness or anxiety.

“[The mentors] love kids, they want to pass on what’s happened, how they got there, their struggles,” Regruth said. “They are so sincere in their delivery about the good and the bad times and this worked and this didn’t.” The kids love it, she said.

Because the program prioritizes working with low-income, Title I schools and with students from rural and underserved communities, Mesler said it has been important that the athletes reflect students’ identities, including their race, gender and disability status. At the same time, the athletes can introduce students to more diversity than they encounter in their communities. Regruth’s predominantly white students spent this last year interacting with Gillette, a Black athlete, who shared his personal experiences with students during this summer’s racial justice movement.

The opportunity to mentor low-income and rural students in a community like the one he grew up in was what initially drew skier Kurka to the program. It is often hard for children, especially “when they’re living in a world that doesn’t promote their expansion, doesn’t promote their growth” to see beyond their immediate communities, he said. But through the program, Kurka said, he is able to engage with them “in an ever so simple way that they can relate to and that they really, really like.”

According to Mesler, the program has also shown how to “create relationships via technology,” something that’s especially important given that most students across the country are still learning remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic. The program and its materials were completely online before schools began shutting down last March, so Classroom Champions didn’t have to change anything. In fact, the program recently launched its own private platform through the Classroom Champions website to make it easier for classrooms and athletes to communicate back and forth. The athletes also regularly use social media to connect with teachers and students outside of the platform.

“I mean 94 percent of our kids will say that their athlete mentor is their friend, [but] they haven’t met them in person at all,” Mesler said. “They’ve just asynchronously exchanged things and then they’ve done some Skype-ins or Zooms with them.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about social emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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