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Prioritizing Racial Equity Within Social and Emotional Learning in Tacoma

One of Six Case Studies of Schools and Out-of-School-Time Program Partners

In Tacoma, an elementary school established social-emotional learning and equity as a nonnegotiable foundation for its work with students, staff members and families. Supports included a range of training opportunities and written social-emotional learning lessons incorporating racial equity.
September 2022
Students sit in a circle.
  • Author(s)
  • Susannah Faxon-Mills, Heather L. Schwartz, and Catherine H. Augustine
  • Publisher(s)
  • RAND Corporation
Page Count 30 pages


How we did this

Researchers drew on a variety of data for this case study of  Lister Elementary School in Tacoma. 

At some schools, introducing social and emotional learning (SEL) programs is all about evolution. Take Lister Elementary School in Tacoma, Wash. At Lister, a new leadership spearheaded a school-wide emphasis on SEL. Then, over time, school leaders and staff members integrated a focus on racial equity and restorative practices into its SEL approach.

The story of those efforts is detailed in this case study. It’s one of a series detailing collaborations between schools and OST programs in six communities aimed at boosting social and emotional learning.

SEl During the School Day

Lister didn’t have OST programs on site until the second year of the four-year initiative. Then, the efforts were interrupted by COVID-19 pandemic in year three,  shifting to a virtual model combining students from multiple schools in year four. As a result, Lister’s partnership with OST programs was at an early stage or at an interrupted stage of development during most of the initiative. For that reason, the case study focuses on SEL during just the school day.

Part of a Larger Initiative

The communities were participants in Wallace’s Partnerships for Social and Emotional Learning Initiative, which brought together school districts and their OST partners to develop and put in place SEL activities across learning settings.

Key Strategies

The school used four key strategies as its work evolved, including:

  • Gaining and maintaining staff buy-in
  • Building racial equity and restorative practices into its SEL resources
  • Designing and delivering comprehensive support, including training and new curriculum, to build staff members’ SEL and equity capacity
  • Reframing SEL and equity work as complementary to (rather than competing with) academic priorities

School leaders also embedded SEL throughout the school’s policies and practices. For example, they included SEL in teacher evaluations and made commitment to racial equity a priority in the school’s mission statement. And they ensured that students and staff used a common vocabulary when communicating about SEL.

Noteworthy Achievements

These efforts resulted in significant successes, such as:

  •  A clear road map for reaching specific SEL outcomes
  •  A decline in disciplinary actions among students
  •  A new, culturally-responsive curriculum
  •  High levels of SEL implementation

As teachers we talk a lot about ‘we don’t have time, we don’t have time.’ But in my perspective, I have a lot of academic time, because I’m [no longer] helping kiddos problem-solve, because we’ve [already] taught them how to do that and we’re continually reinforcing.

— Michelle Hahn, Tacoma Whole Child facilitator, Lister Elementary

Key Takeaways

  • Lister Elementary School’s approach to SEL evolved. Starting with establishing a school-wide emphasis on SEL, school leaders and staff members then integrated a focus on racial equity and restorative practices into its SEL approach. 
  • Establishing common terminology about SEL and equity supported consistent and open communication between and among staff and students.
  • The focus on SEL and racial equity resulted in a decline in disciplinary actions among students.


Timeline of Lister’s SEL and Equity Evolution

Materials & Downloads

What We Don't Know

The collaboration took place in a large urban district primarily serving students from historically disadvantaged populations. For that reason, lessons learned may not apply to all elementary schools. 

The case study assesses school-wide efforts and not the Tacoma school-OST program partnership.

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