OPRF and local partners receive $100,000 grant for social-emotional learning

A collaboration of the three local school districts and several other community groups has been chosen to receive one of only two $100,000 grants to enhance social-emotional and equity-focused learning practices for local children of all ages.

Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, working in collaboration with Oak Park School District 97, River Forest School District 90, The Echo Center, the Collaboration for Early Childhood, and Equity Team Inc., is receiving the Educator Practice Community grant from the NoVo Foundation and its partners Education First and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. 

The grant will fund the formation of a collaborative Educator Practice Community, aimed at deepening social-emotional learning (SEL) practices. An increasing part of today’s educational environment, these practices help children from early childhood through high school understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, show empathy for others, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. In addition, the practice community will use an explicit equity lens to do its work.  

At the helm of the collaboration are OPRF English teachers Avi Lessing and Gisele Ramilo, history teacher Dana Limberg, and science teacher Amy McGrail. OPRF and its community partners were eligible to apply for the grant because OPRF is a two-time recipient of past NoVo Foundation SEL in Action Awards, received in 2017 and 2018. 

Lessing played a key role in recruiting partners with a wealth of knowledge and perspective around building equitable SEL practices that challenge the systems of oppression impacting marginalized student populations. “We were mindful in forming our team because we recognize that equitable learning is not enough,” said Lessing. “Each district and organization plays its part in ensuring we are simultaneously examining and creating experiences that transform our schools and communities from systems that can create isolation, hierarchy, and alienation to learning partnerships of mutual trust and liberation.”       

Positively impacting children before they even begin kindergarten and continuing to offer systemized care as they grow older is another core component of the practice community’s work. “Our ambitious vision is, as children go through our school communities, there would be lots of data shared at each step, from preschool through high school,” said OPRF’s Limberg. “That will allow us all to have a better understanding of how we can meet [students’] social and emotional needs.”

The Collaboration for Early Childhood, which oversees early developmental screening efforts in Oak Park and River Forest, collects and analyzes robust sets of data. The organization's knowledge of using that information to measure the impact of programs and interventions is one of its major contributions to the practice community.

The Echo Center, newly founded as a shared space to highlight marginalized voices, will serve as the practice community’s “hub” and host multi-disciplinary art programs such as plays, dance performances,  and video projects. The content will come directly from interviews and focus groups with students to identify and discuss bright spots and opportunity gaps in our schools and communities, such as how SEL initiatives are received,  the culture and climate of school and community environments, and what impacts those have on learning.

“[We] are committed to listening to our students, and teachers and families,” said Frances Kraft, co-founder of Equity Team Inc., a grassroots nonprofit that works closely with the school districts to lead restorative practices and uses community organizing strategies to facilitate conversations with community stakeholders. “It is important that they lead this work in our schools and in our community.”

While the grant funds don’t get distributed until May, the practice community cohort has already met several times to build connections among themselves, develop a holistic, inclusive approach, and begin the process of understanding each other's various contexts and practices. “One of our hopes is to build a comprehensive and cohesive framework that brings together social-emotional learning and culturally responsive pedagogy through the lens of racial equity and mindfulness,” said Faith Cole, District 97 director of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. 

The Educator Practice Community is expected to address six broad areas within its first year, including setting shared goals, making its equity agenda explicit, and planning and prototyping implementation plans. Next year, in 2021, grantees will be invited to apply for up to $150,000 more over the course of an additional two years to fund implementation efforts.

For more information about NoVo Foundation SEL in Action Awards, click here.