Charging Forward for SEL

No one knows more than a superintendent or any district administrator that the demand for social and emotional learning from states and school systems is at an all-time high. Action to address the individual needs of our students has never been more urgent.

Let me thank my good friend, Aaron Spence, and his staff at Virginia Beach City Public Schools for recently hosting the Spring 2022 AASA SEL Cohort meeting. After listening to Superintendent Spence’s keynote speech, I appreciated hearing why he is so vested in this critical issue.

“I want our children to feel known, to feel seen, to feel heard and feel loved,” he told the gathering. During his remarks, he shared a story about his own children when he talked about how much he wants them “to feel deeply connected to other human beings where they feel like they belong.”

Shouldn’t every child in every school in America enjoy the same feeling of connection? Not a day goes by when I don’t wish that for my 13 grandchildren.

Meanwhile, let me congratulate Naperville Community Unit School District 203 in Illinois for being selected earlier this month as one of our AASA Learning 2025 Lighthouse Demonstration Systems. With respect to its Lighthouse focus area, look at D203’s SEL mission statement: “We cultivate resourceful, resilient citizens by teaching social, emotional and academic skills in a nurturing learning environment.” I say bravo!

I recently had the opportunity to team up with my colleagues Mort Sherman (associate executive director, Leadership Network) and John Brown (writer-in-residence) on our recently published, Leading Social-Emotional Learning in Districts and Schools. The book contains a myriad of reflections from superintendents and support staff in developing and sustaining SEL competencies. For example, Superintendent Luvelle Brown shared the following SEL structures and processes currently underway at Ithaca City (N.Y.) School District:

  • Student-led conferences
  • A culturally responsive school and district calendar
  • Clearly articulated equity policies and practices
  • Validation and affirmation of the home
  • Emphasis upon validation, affirmation and support for all learners
  • In-class SEL strategies (e.g., attention signals, disruption protocols, movement, active and visual vocabulary acquisition activities)
  • Encouragement of culturally responsive respective, and sensitive practices
  • Focus on alternative forms of assessment and progress monitoring
  • A learning environment that is patient, caring, loving, forgiving and trusting.

As the three of us point out in the book, there is no question that we are living in challenging and unpresented times. Throughout the United States—and at the global level—educators, families and communities now recognize that the social, emotional, physical and academic development of learners is a holistic, integrating process. Increasingly, educating the “Whole Child” is no longer rhetoric, but an institutional necessity.

If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of the book, please access the AASA website.

Whether you’re a superintendent or not, thank you all for the work you’re doing to bolster SEL awareness in your learning communities. If we’re going to increase capacity to effectively lead a change geared toward the social and emotional outcomes for all of our students, it’s going to take a team effort in every school district in America.

Through our Leadership Network, AASA continues to recognize successful social and emotional learning programs throughout the country. The cohort is a vibrant community engaged in meaningful dialogue about how SEL is contributing to the whole child—from physical and mental health to the development of fundamental, lifelong learning skills. If you’re thinking about joining the cohort or have questions about it, please don’t hesitate to contact Mort at

Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Nashville Postscript: A Few Reflections and a Heartfelt Thank You to our ‘Heroes’

Since the conclusion of the 2022 edition of AASA’s National Conference on Education, I’ve had a few reflections I’ve been meaning to share.

Superintendents tell me they’re still beaming over February’s convening in Nashville. Whether you were among the record crowd of more than 4,700 who joined us or not, at a time when our public schools continue to serve as the backbone of our democracy, let me say thank you for the outstanding work you’re doing.

Our previous in-person national conference was two years ago in San Diego, only a few weeks before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Who would have predicted then that we would still be battling this virus?

My message to the packed audience at the Music City Center was simple: Now more than ever, superintendents have truly been champions for the children they serve. They’re looking not only to survive the pandemic but to thrive on behalf of America’s young learners.

It’s been a difficult road to say the least. Many of our colleagues have been subject to verbal abuse. There have been numerous threats against them and in some cases, threats against their families. The pressures of the job have led to too many district leaders leaving the profession willingly or otherwise. Reporters’ requests come in, seemingly on an everyday basis, asking me to comment on the rapid turnover rate that is causing a leadership drain right before our very eyes.

We at AASA are doing all we can to support you. We sincerely hope our conference provided you—America’s foremost thought leaders in public education—with a platform to reenergize. We hope there were ample opportunities to network with noted practitioners in the field, and highly acclaimed researchers and peers from across the country as you continue the fight for equity, and the safety and welfare of our nation’s children.

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona could not have put it any plainer when he appeared on our stage and said, “We don’t spend enough time talking about the positive impact on the emotional well-being of our students because of the hard work of everyone in this room.”

Hard work is right. And speaking of which, let me congratulate Missouri’s Curtis Cain, superintendent of the Wentzville School District, for being named the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year®. “If a skinny kid from the north side of Milwaukee, Wis., can stand on this stage at this point in time, I’m telling you, public education is worth the fight,” he told the overflow audience. Congratulations as well to the three other finalists: Quincy Natay (Chinle Unified School District No. 24, Chinle, Ariz.), Kamela Patton (Collier County Public Schools, Naples, Fla.) and Noris Price (Baldwin County Schools, Milledgeville, Ga.). I thank AIG Retirement Services and First Student for sponsoring our program.

At a time when AASA is working diligently to honor outstanding female leaders in our field, I also wish to congratulate the 2022 Women in School Leadership honorees: Sharon Contreras, superintendent of Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C. and Susan Field, assistant superintendent for learning services, Academy District 20, in Colorado Springs, Colo. No one can argue that a major component of working toward equitable solutions in our school systems is recognizing the outstanding leadership from women who are making a positive difference in the lives of children. We thank Horace Mann for sponsoring this award.

Did you happen to stop by our Wellness Center? As part of AASA’s “Live Well. Lead Well.” campaign, we wanted to make sure you had a chance to relax and unwind at a specific area dedicated to your self-care. I couldn’t agree more with my friend, Paul Imhoff, superintendent of Ohio’s Upper Arlington Schools and the 2021-22 president of AASA, when he said, “Leaders who aren’t well, cannot lead. Teachers who aren’t well cannot teach and students who aren’t well cannot learn.”

(Watch the video: “Therapy Pups Pull in the Crowds at AASA Wellness Center, Promoting Various Measures for Attending to Superintendent Self-Care.”)

Speaking of attractions, once again, our Social Media Lounge, enjoying its eighth consecutive year of operation, drew scores of tech-savvy superintendents who are making efforts to bolster their knowledge on telling positive stories with their constituents through the social media space. I invite you to join the conversation by accessing #NCE2022 if you haven’t done so. Many already have as our hashtag generated 24.2 million impressions throughout conference week. I also encourage you to access Conference Daily Online to catch up on anything you may have missed. The four issues contained a total of 80 news stories, 21 short video clips and nearly 20 blog postings by four superintendents.

As you know, gone are the days when our conference is a Thursday-through-Saturday gathering. Given our robust professional development programs administered by AASA’s Leadership Network, our annual meeting stretches far beyond a three-day window as it begins at the beginning of the week and concludes with our third General Session, six days later. I had the opportunity to visit superintendents and other administrators taking part in our National Superintendent Certification Program®. A thought I shared with them can certainly apply to all of you: “We’re constantly learning. Things are constantly changing. In light of the challenges you’re facing and the stress you’re under—you are my heroes.”

Yes, these are challenging times, but without question, this moment presents unique opportunities regarding how to best use the mandate for change with an abundance of significant new federal resources to redesign education. We can move toward the theme of this conference, a more student-centered, equity-focused, and future-driven approach to public education as set forth in our Learning 2025 framework. At a time when we just passed the one-year anniversary of when the American Rescue Plan was sign into law, we look forward to working with both Congress and the administration on policy changes that can enhance the success of ARP investment and the ability to meet the pandemic-related needs of our most vulnerable students.

Once again, thank you for joining us in Nashville. I look forward to seeing you at our 2023 National Conference on Education in San Antonio!

Daniel A. Domenech is the executive director of AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Music City, Here I Come!

Two years ago, when we said goodbye following the conclusion of our National Conference on Education in San Diego, Calif., no one could have ever imagined the topsy-turvy world that we were heading into. That seems like a lifetime ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to go on lockdown and school buildings to empty, followed by a flurry of trials and tribulations surrounding the challenges of virtual learning.

Though we’re still battling the effects of the pandemic, I am proud of the superintendents—America’s “Champions for Children”—who are working tirelessly every day to fight for equity and the social and emotional well-being of our young learners.

I am so pleased to be heading to Nashville, Tenn., for the 2022 edition of our National Conference on Education, a place where record-breaking numbers of superintendents and other school system leaders attending our event will have ample opportunities to listen, grow and learn with each other on behalf of the students, families and communities they serve.At our opening general session, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is joining us for a discussion focusing on the American Rescue Plan investment and implementation, the role of data collection, teacher and staffing shortages, and the critical need to ensure public education support.

We will also announce the 2022 National Superintendent of the Year®. Our finalists are:

If you haven’t seen it yet, I would invite you to watch the video: “AASA’s 2022 National Superintendent of the Year® Finalists,” capturing January’s press briefing that featured these outstanding school district leaders.

New this year, as part of AASA’s Live Well. Lead Well. initiative, is the Live Well. Lead Well. Health & Wellness Center. Conference goers can recharge and relax in a special area of the exhibit hall dedicated to mental, physical and emotional well-being.

AASA’s ever-popular Social Media Lounge is part of the program for the eighth consecutive year. All conference attendees can engage with their peers online by using the hashtag #NCE2022 in social media posts. I also encourage you to check out Conference Daily Online which will be updated each evening and contain wall-to-wall coverage of our event plus a conference blog that shares the experiences of four participating superintendents.

Finally, let me assure you that AASA is committed to ensuring proper health and that safety measures are in place. Click here for more information.

Thank you for the work you’re doing under the most challenging conditions imaginable. I hope I get a chance to speak with as many of you as possible while we’re in Nashville.

Make Taking Care of Yourself a Mantra for 2022

What seems like a lifetime ago, my good friend Pedro Noguera, the current dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education, delivered the keynote address at the AASA-Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy Inaugural Conference in 2015. Whether you’ve been on the job as a superintendent for two years or 20, or hoping to become a superintendent, I would encourage you to give his talk a listen. He offered “Ten Points of Advice” to the educators taking part in the first-ever cohort of this groundbreaking program.

It would’ve been unimaginable that a public health crisis would, just five years later, turn our country on its heels and forever change the way public education is being administered and delivered. Through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic and how we live our lives today, Dr. Noguera’s 10th point was perhaps the most important: “Take Care of Yourself.”

“Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, psychologically (and), spiritually because we all know too many good people who have taken on this work have left prematurely,” he told the audience. Given the mass exodus of good leaders we’re seeing today, it was as if he had a crystal ball.

In addition to the unprecedented numbers of superintendents leaving the profession, we continue to hear about staffing shortages that have become the norm. To make matters worse, superintendents and their families are being physically threatened.

Unfortunately, that’s the stark reality we’re grappling with today.

Discussions I’ve had with superintendents on this issue over the past few weeks have been consistent: Our mission, our job, our responsibility is to do everything we can to ensure school district staff and students are safe. We want the kids to be in school, in the classroom, to receive the education they are entitled to. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we got into this profession in the first place. Our superintendents are fighting tooth and nail for the kids in the communities they’re serving. If we depart from that, we’re in trouble.

I know our members need help. They need techniques and strategies to help them deal with the stress.

In response to the pain coupled with the tremendous amount of pressure being felt from coast to coast, we were proud to launch the Live Well. Lead Well. campaign shortly before the end of the year. AASA President Paul Imhoff, who initiated the campaign, could not have said it better while addressing a group of Ohio school leaders:

“Students who aren’t well can’t learn. Teachers who aren’t well can’t teach. Leaders who aren’t well can’t lead. We need to take care of ourselves so that we are able to serve those in our care. We can’t lead if we aren’t well. The superintendency is not an individual sport; it is a team sport. We need each other. We need to lock arms and support each other.”

As part of the campaign, I am excited to report that we will have a Health and Wellness Center at next month’s National Conference on Education in Nashville, Tenn. This designated area will allow attendees to take a few minutes to relax and unwind. Throughout the year, President Imhoff will also lead a series of discussions, focusing on self-care, student care and staff care. You can learn more about it by visiting our website.

I am proud of our superintendents—America’s ‘champions for children’—as they continue to fight for equity, and the safety and welfare of the children they serve. I urge you to make the necessary adjustments this year to make personal health and well-being a high priority.

For those of you who have left the profession, I wish that, when the dust settles, you consider coming back. It’s not unusual to see individuals re-entering the field after a brief, one- or two-year retirement. That’s my hope.

I close with a solemn promise: We will move forward. Throughout our nation’s history, we’ve had blizzards, fires, floods, hurricanes, snipers, school shootings, 9/11 and many more tragic events. Through it all, public education and public school leadership have stood the test of time.

Our superintendents—our champions for children—will continue to stand tall. And AASA will always stand right beside you.

AASA Learning Recovery & Redesign Guidance

School districts across the nation are facing an unprecedented challenge in School Year 2021-22: how to effectively and equitably recover from the impacts of COVID-19 while still navigating an ongoing pandemic. At the same time, this moment also presents unprecedented opportunities: how to best use the mandate for change and significant new federal resources to also redesign toward a more student-centered, equity-focused, and future-driven approach to public education.

To help our members at this critical time, we are excited to share the first installments of the AASA Learning Recovery & Redesign Guidance, which identifies four Guiding Principles that should show up across your plans and that can inform any revisions you make. This and additional, forthcoming resources have been developed in collaboration with the AASA American Rescue Plan Committee, the AASA Learning 2025 Network, and our partners at EducationCounsel.

Specifically, school district recovery and redesign plans should:

  1. Plant Seeds — As you address immediate needs (“fill holes”), you should seek ways to also begin or accelerate shifts toward your long-term vision (“plant seeds”).
  2. Center Equity — Ensure all students get the support they need to thrive, especially those most impacted by the pandemic, and redesign any systems that create or perpetuate inequities.
  3. Use & Build Knowledge — To maximize your chances of success, start with what is known and then learn and improve as you go.
  4. Sustain Strategically — Plan carefully for the end of these supplementary funds or risk going over a “fiscal cliff.

Clicking on each of those links will open a corresponding two-page Self-Assessment Tool that you, your teams, and/or other stakeholders can use to pause, reflect, and identify ways to improve. Especially with summer 2022 and SY22-23 planning around the corner, this is the time to reflect on your initial plans. Ask yourself:

  • Are your initial plans responsive to what you now know about student and staff needs?
  • Are they still feasible given your community’s current conditions, including the state of the pandemic, your local labor market, and other contextual factors that have become clearer over the past several months?
  • What tweaks to your plans can help you make the most of your federal recovery funds?

We dug into these Guiding Principles and Self-Assessment Tools during an introductory webinar that you can view by clicking here. We hope these initial resources help guide your thinking about how to make the most of your available resources. Please also share any feedback and ideas for what other supports are most needed by clicking here.

Creating a Winning Triangle: Schools, Workforce & Community through Apprenticeships

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Cherry Creek Innovation Campus, a career preparedness facility for high school students in the Cherry Creek School District, located just outside of Denver, Colo.

This visit was part of an AASA Youth Apprenticeship Summit, where superintendents joined me to get a firsthand look at engaged and motivated students pursuing potential pathways to gain the skills necessary to earn a portable credential in preparation for their next step, whether that was heading directly to college or entering the workforce.

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Ready to Hit the Ground Running in 2021

For generations, maintaining a leadership role in reshaping America’s public education agenda has always been an integral part of AASA’s DNA. Just a few days after the outcome of the 2020 elections, we were pleased to issue a set of proposed education policy recommendations for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris.

We know that the new administration is looking for a path forward, and a healthy and quick response to, and recovery from, the COVID-19 pandemic.

AASA is committed to having a strong professional and collaborative relationship with the next administration. The policy recommendations we are proposing culminate our efforts to set a new, positive course for American education and ensure America is a land of opportunity for every child.

The report, A New Education Vision for a New Administration, which was prepared by the AASA Policy and Advocacy Team, contains the following key recommendations:

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A San Diego Serenade, AASA Style

In an era when criticism of public education is constantly spewing from all corners of the nation, my message to the more than 3,400 school system leaders last week at the 2020 AASA National Conference on Education was simple: American education today is the best it has ever been.

Whether or not you were able to join us in San Diego, let me thank you for your hard work to make that possible.

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Celebrating Public Education in San Diego

Our country soon kicks off a weeklong celebration on behalf of the more than 50 million students who are learning and growing in our nation’s public schools.

Throughout Public Schools Week 2020 (Feb. 24-28), school systems large and small will showcase the good news happening inside their classrooms. This annual recognition highlights the critical role public education plays in shaping our nation’s  future and underscores why it serves as the bedrock of our democracy.

Considering that nine out of 10 children attend public schools, there is no better time than now to speak out for our young learners.

This celebration will get a jump-start when hundreds of superintendents—the CEOs of our public school districts and America’s ambassadors of great learning—arrive in San Diego for the 2020 National Conference on Education (Feb. 13-15), hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. Year in, year out, this annual gathering attracts some of the country’s foremost education thought leaders addressing the needs of every child, every day.

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Meeting the Social Emotional Needs of Our Students

My education career started as a 6th grade teacher in New York City, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and the Cambria Heights neighborhood in Queens. Both areas were noted for students from low income minority and immigrant families. Today we would refer to them as Title I schools.

I quickly perceived that my students were not coming to school ready to learn. They were distracted, lacked discipline and were not motivated. Many came to school hungry, sick and preoccupied with issues at home. I had the advantage of being a fluent Spanish speaker and young. Many of the students gravitated towards me as they felt that I was one of them.

Those were the days that preceded the No Child Left Behind era of accountability based on student test scores. My students were tested but the standardized test scores were unavailable for at least two years. By then most of the students were gone. Also, my principal was happy to have an adult in each classroom. Teacher turn-over was a major factor.

The situation was there that empowered me to take a step back from academics and focus on the needs of the students.

The Cambria Heights school I taught in was only two blocks away from the home I lived in with my parents. I began walking home for lunch and taking four or five students with me. My mother would make them sandwiches and afterwards we would shoot some hoops in the driveway.

Not a doable situation today.

The result was that I developed a rapport with my students so that they responded to the dignity I showed them with respect towards me. I quickly realized that they were willing to learn from me, that I could teach them and that my positive reaction to their improved performance in itself became a reward for them.

Today we refer to this process as social emotional learning. By addressing the needs of their students teachers earn their respect and conversely the students are more willing to learn. Fifty-two years after I started teaching, my daughter is also a sixth grade teacher working with a student population very similar to the students I taught. In conversations with her she shares with me her adventures in the classroom. Although she does not have the freedom I enjoyed, she treats her students with dignity and they in turn return her efforts with their respect. She has already won the accolades of her administrators by obtaining test scores that would not be expected for her students. Students that are not in her class gravitate towards her because her students talk to their friends.

I smile as she shares her stories with me. She shows me the notes she receives from her students showing great appreciation for what she does for them. I am incredibly proud of her and in my conceit I say that she takes after her dad.

I hope that American education has turned the corner and we are more concerned about the needs of our students than we are about their test scores. Suicide rates and drug usage is rampant. Students are being shot in their classrooms. Students are sick and hungry because we are denying them food and medical services. If we take care of them their scores will take care of themselves.