Growth Public Schools: Placing Social Emotional Learning at the Foundation


It was a rocky start to the school year for one kindergarten student. They were having a difficult time navigating the school day, and explosive outbursts in the middle of the classroom became the norm. Interrupted learning time for the student and their peers was the ultimate result.

Fast forward to January and this same Kindergarten student walks quietly away from the rug and counts to ten. After taking few deep breaths, they’re ready to sit back down with their class and return to learning. They’re using emotional management strategies, or what they call “Emogers.” These are the strategies they’ve learned as a result of the social emotional programming taking place at Growth Public Schools.

The Development of Growth Public Schools

Growth Public Schools opened its doors for the first time in fall of 2017, but Founder and CEO, David Richards is not new to the charter school scene. Richards began his work in education over 20 years ago and has held a variety of positions, including: tutor, teacher, consultant, principal, and, most recently, Chief of Schools for Summit Public Schools, a well known charter school network. While at Summit Public Schools, Richards implemented a student-centered academic model, which he carried with him when he laid the foundation for Growth Public Schools.

Located in Sacramento, California, Growth Public Schools is dedicated to equally developing the academic and nonacademic skills that are critical to students success. Richards explains how he developed the vision for GPS:

“Through my conversations with parents, grandparents and community leaders over the last few years, a common concern rose to the surface – a deep worry that students are not prepared to reach their full potential.”

For this reason, he set out to create a school that would “ensure students are problem solvers, innovators, and change makers.” Every decision from teacher training to technology selection has been made with this goal in mind.

Social Emotional Learning as the Foundation

When you take a look at GPS’s values, it becomes clear that social emotional learning, and the skills that come along with it, are at the heart of the school. One of the values you’ll find listed on the website makes this perfectly clear:

We believe in the power of social emotional learning.

In Richards’ experience prior to GPS, he saw huge gains when social emotional learning initiatives were implemented, particularly at the high school level at a Summit Public School in San Jose. SEL was a non-negotiable part of the development of GPS and Richards wanted to make sure he gave teachers the appropriate programs to support it.

This was one of the reasons Audria Johnson, principal, was most excited about coming to Growth. In Johnson’s past work experience the major focus was on academics. She witnessed intense, rigorous programs being put into place, and while they produced results, students were often on edge because of the high levels of stress they were feeling,

“I could see the negative impact this was having on my students, particularly when they interacted with one another and the adults in their lives. I know that by placing SEL at the foundation, we have a chance to be more proactive rather than reactive.”

SEL Initiatives, Teacher Buy In & Student Impact

A number of SEL initiatives have been put into place at Growth Public Schools, including: restorative practices and Move This World. Johnson stresses the fact that it’s “really important for teachers and staff to have the rationale behind why a certain program is being implemented.” One way she gets everyone on board is by sharing the research, case studies and success stories that went into the decision to purchase. She also provides a clear picture for how they believe the program will impact the students and the school as a whole.

Move This World has helped the school develop a daily practice of identifying and expressing emotions. It’s also given students the opportunity to develop and practice easy-to-use emotional management strategies. At a holiday event in December, the parents of a Growth student approached Ms. Johnson thanking her and the other leaders at GPS for the growth they had seen in their child. Close to tears, they talked about the behavioral difficulties their students had faced in their previous school and the drastic change they have seen at Growth. They’re able to calm themselves down and they seem to have a better understanding of their emotions. The students often talk about Move This World at home and have even encouraged their parents to use “their Emogers” [emotional management strategies] when they seem upset.

Another initiative that has had a positive impact at GPS is the implementation of restorative practices. Restorative practices is a social science that explains how building trust, mutual understanding and shared values and behaviors will bind a group of people together and make cooperative action possible. GPS handles all disciplinary issues through a restorative practices mindset.

Growth isn’t only focusing on student wellbeing either. Another initiative includes their Valor Circles, which is used as a form of teacher wellbeing for staff to discuss challenges, obstacles and support one another. The school also supports teachers through professional development opportunities. In March, the school hosted a “refresher” PD to remind the teachers of the importance of restorative practices and what they should look like in the classroom day to day. The school offers a unique “Explorations” program in which partners from the community plan events within the school. Most recently, a theater company visited the school and planned programming for the students. These “Explorations” give teachers the time to engage in professional development without distraction.

Through an innovative school schedule, project-based learning opportunities, prioritization of social emotional learning and attention to teacher wellness and support, Growth Public Schools has defined themselves as a trailblazer within education. This school  year the school served 108 students in kindergarten and first grade. Next year, in their second year as a charter, the school will grow to 168 students.


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