Interviewing Sue Lehmann, Co-Founder, Student Success Network and Chalkbeat
Sue Lehmann, Student Success Network Co-Founder
Daniel: SSN's network has grown to 60 organizations since your launch in 2013. What factors have propelled this growth and how does SSN select the organizations with which to work?
Sue: SSN was founded by the leaders of 15 nonprofits who were distressed by the almost exclusive focus on academic results for middle and high school students. They knew youth also need social and emotional intelligence to succeed. Today nonprofits are drawn to SSN because they want to be part of a data-informed, relationship- and values-driven community committed to the development of the whole child. They are also drawn to SSN because they want to be part of a community with so many great organizations learning from one another. This year, we will make sharing and learning even easier. Each member has its own “network navigator” whose job it is to understand their specific program goals and place them in a cohort with other members seeking to improve results against a similar goal. The Network Navigator’s job is to listen to members and tailor offerings to meet their needs. In addition to results-focused cohorts (we call these cohorts “collabs”) Network Navigators will curate learning opportunities for members that address their interest in deepening knowledge and/or skills, in such areas as continuous improvement, for example. We are very excited about this new school year and the possibilities for helping SSN members serve more students better, faster.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a hot topic over the past several years, not least driven by the ground-breaking work at SSN and by SSN organizations. In an ever more digital age, with big data analytics, binary statistical methods, machine learning, and artificial intelligence framing so much of our educational and economic choices, what insights does the focus on SEL offer?
The focus on SEL in the world of big data offers the possibility of understanding what drives positive identity development -- the ultimate goal of the experiences our youth have -- so youth-serving institutions can better meet the needs of the young people they serve. They can meet these needs in three ways: (1) helping young people build competencies as they are developmentally ready by giving them ever greater responsibility -- and support as needed -- for planning and managing their time as they progress through school; (2) providing flexible programing so that young people are more in the driver’s seat and become more active learners; and (3) identifying practices that make a difference, along with underlying conditions that support effective practices.
For example, SSN has just released the results of its 2017-18 SEL survey. 18 sites (out of 200 where our members surveyed students in 2017-18) are doing an exceptional job of boosting student social and emotional learning. Three of those sites are Mouse sites. We interviewed site leaders to understand their practices; other organizations can now learn from those practices. They can also learn about underlying conditions successful site leaders say are necessary for practices to thrive. Conditions, such as safe, caring relationships. There can't be a "best practice" without trust, respect and real caring.
Some critics characterize SEL as being impossible to measure. Yet SSN and your partners have demonstrated otherwise. Tell our readers how SSN has done this, ranging from the seven SEL competencies identified as crucial for learner success to the SSN mantra that organizations collaborate to learn best & improve together.
SEL is hard to measure. And practitioners and youth in our network, guided by researchers, meet regularly to improve our student self-report survey, from what we measure to how we measure it. This improvement shows in the results we get. For example, our data show that middle schoolers whose ELA and math scores grew also showed increases in growth mindset. Similarly, high schoolers whose GPA increased also improved in self-regulation. A new finding this year is that over-age, under-credited students who feel a greater sense of belonging improve attendance and growth mindset.
Our first 15 members chose the competencies we measure based on collaborative exploration and learning. They also selected a student self report survey not only because it is a cost-effective way to collect student data, but most importantly, they trusted young people as the experts on their own experience. Members of SSN’s Youth Advisory Council have improved the training and materials we provide to teachers and others who administer the survey so youth feel comfortable being vulnerable and honest in their responses.
Having a common SEL measurement tool and dataset across multiple organizations is not easy to achieve. Alignment is never easy. But it pays off in multiple ways. Imagine the impact on students if we could align NYC’s youth-serving institutions and organizations around key goals and metrics from cradle to career and learn from those who are closing the opportunity gap at each milestone! There is no silver bullet. I am more convinced than ever we can close the opportunity gap by empowering our youth and staff at every level with timely and relevant data and trusting them to use it as guidance and inspiration for learning and improvement.
Shifting gears, let's talk about your latest venture: Chalkbeat, which in just a few years has become a "must-read" for the K-12 sector. Chalkbeat's close attention to its respective local scenes (with seven regional offices as well as a national office) differentiates its reporting from that of other publications. What can you tell our readers about the decision to emphasize the "ground game" in K-12, and what is Chalkbeat's strategy for the coming years?
Education is local. So you have to be on the scene to understand the decision makers, influencers, and factors that lead to any decision. You have to be there, constantly reporting what is happening, to understand the ins and outs, the context of implementation. High-quality reporting requires trusting relationships with sources and with readers. Our mission is to help education’s stakeholders – parents, students, teachers, administrators, policy-makers, taxpayers – make informed decisions. That means we need to understand the stories of education at a deep level and tell them in a way our readers feel empowered to engage in the debate. Our aim is to build a community of informed people who care about the education of students who have traditionally been underserved and who stand up for what they believe is true.
What advice might you have for an entrepreneur thinking about founding a youth development non-profit in NYC or elsewhere for that matter?
It is really hard to do. You need partners – thought partners, implementation partners, partners to fill in gaps. You need patience – it takes time to develop and refine a theory of action. And you need persistence – when Teach For America was celebrating its 20th anniversary, I asked Wendy Kopp what she was most proud of. Her answer: “Sticking with it.”
What book or essay, movie or song has most profoundly changed how you approach and conduct your work at SSN and/or Chalkbeat and why?
In 1963, friends and I participated in the March on Washington. As we dangled our sore feet in the reflecting pool beneath the Washington Monument, Martin Luther King elevated our minds and our spirits with his dream. At that moment, I knew that fighting for that dream would be part of my life’s work.
I believe this dream can become reality if each of us steps up and sticks with it. Our democracy is not self-sustaining. It requires each of us to make our contribution in the best way we can. Every single day. If we do that, we will build a society that is kinder, more stable, more peaceful, and more just.
The Student Success Network (SSN) is a rapidly growing network of 60 youth development and education organizations committed to empowering NYC’s low-income middle and high school students with the social-emotional learning (SEL) capacities they need to succeed in college and career. SSN members believe that a disciplined, collective approach to solving shared challenges accelerates progress so that more students receive the support they need and deserve.