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The following is excerpted from a virtual panel discussion “SEL & School Reopening: A Student-Centered Approach,” co-hosted by NYC Outward Bound Schools and The Urban Assembly. In this excerpt, Hon. Mark Treyger, NYC Council Member and Chair of the Committee on Education, names Leaders High School, a NYC Outward Bound School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, as a model for how relationship-building should be implemented in schools city-wide. This transcription has been edited for clarity and length.

I am reminded by my visit before the pandemic to Leaders, which is a great [NYC] Outward Bound School in my district, and what I remember from that visit was the camaraderie, the strong relationship-building within the Crew model.

I come from a large comprehensive high school, and I’m proud of my school — I love where I taught. But within the same zip code was Leaders, where they created this small learning community and the strong bonds between students and their educators. And I remember asking myself — “How come we don’t learn about this within the broader system?” Because they really knew how to establish important connections.

As a teacher, you have to do things before you ask students to pay attention to instruction — you have to work on building trust. You have to make sure you set positive goals, and that there’s clear expectations in how we have to work together to advance positive outcomes — not just for academic work, but in that social-emotional lens as well. You have to understand their experiences and make that relevant in the work that you’re doing every single day. And if my students didn’t trust me, if we didn’t establish that trust and those positive relationships, it was very hard to advance anything.

Right now as we’re battling this pandemic, we hear this phrase “social distancing.” I’ll clarify that I think we’re in physical distancing, and the challenge that we have to overcome in this school system is — how do we reestablish and deepen social connections? For many students, that school experience is a sanctuary, it is a safe space. I’ve always believed that regardless of whatever’s happening in the world or in a student’s life, that every student needs to feel loved, safe, supported in their school community. And they need that more than ever, because the stories I’ve been hearing from my colleagues and students around the city during this pandemic have been heartbreaking. Teachers have become case managers, making sure that kids have access to food and safe housing, and all the support which they need. Traumas that existed before the pandemic have now been blown wide open during this pandemic. I think our students’ social emotional needs need to be front and center in every decision we make moving forward towards a safe reopening in any type of model.

Schools like those in the Outward Bound and Urban Assembly networks have been doing this work — building relationships, deepening connections — prior to the pandemic. And quite frankly, the school system needs to take a couple of pages from these outstanding networks and organizations as we try to advance safe and responsible school reopening plans going forward.

Every student needs to feel loved, safe and supported in their school community, and they need that more than ever.

Hon. Mark Treyger

NYC Council Member & Chair of the Committee on Education

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