The Gateway Cities Journal

Riding SEL's momentum for substance abuse prevention

The opioid legislation taken up by the House this week excludes a controversial provision from the Senate bill requiring public schools to screen all students in grades 7 through 10 for substance abuse problems. As the bill moves to conference committee, an opening remains to build on the spirit of the Senate’s screening provision  with a superior and less contentious approach.  SE-Report-490x650

As reported by the Boston Globe this week, schools all across the state are increasingly working to nurture the social-emotional development of students. This new focus is driven by concern over school bullying, gun violence, substance abuse, and other behavioral health disorders, but it is also very much rooted in a growing body of research suggesting that social-emotional skills have at least equal, if not greater, influence on life-long success than academic skills.

A broader screening of all students each year is very much at the core of a comprehensive approach to supporting social-emotional growth. These so-called universal screenings help educators understand a student’s individual strengths, which can be built upon to increase positive self-identify and resilience. The screenings may also reveal areas of personal development that may need additional support at varying levels of intensity: for some, getting involved in a positive afterschool activity may do; others may need an adult mentor or professional counseling.

Compared with the limited substance-abuse screening provision in the Senate bill, increasing the practice of universal screening with an aim toward successfully implementing whole-school social-emotional development models will have far more impact in preventing substance abuse disorders. These conditions typically take hold during the transition from late-adolescence to early adulthood. Building social-emotional skills provides a very heavy dose of prevention.

Given the growing interest in creating learning environments that promote social-emotional skill development, a legislative requirement for universal screening is unnecessary. In fact, it would probably be counter-productive. As the organization Teachers21 notes (backed by solid research), successful implementation requires a school-wide approach, where all staff fundamentally buy-in and contribute to the effort, modeling consistent values and norms and working together in teams to promote social-emotional development with varied learning opportunities. This kind of embrace can’t be mandated.

However, if the legislature wants to support the expansion of these efforts, the opioid legislation could contain provisions to help schools establish the infrastructure to effectively perform universal screening. A recent MassINC-UMass Donahue Institute report on efforts to build social-emotional support systems in Gateway City districts revealed that communities struggle to implement universal screening, particularly in high schools. With relatively modest resources, the Legislature could help districts replicate evidence-based models, such as the approach used in Boston and Springfield by City Connects, an initiative led by researchers at Boston College.

Short of directing funds to help improve and expand universal screening, the Legislature could provide the Safe and Supportive Schools Commission with a small line item to hire consultants to examine current screening protocols and offer recommendations to improve the practice. Created by the Legislature in 2014, the commission is charged with exploring strategies to build learning environments that promote positive social-emotional development.

With funds to contract for consulting services, the commission could examine the evolving range of screening protocols currently in place. For instance, while universal screening is uncommon in high schools, many communities are moving to weekly advisory periods in which high school students work with faculty members to build Individual Learning Plans (ILPs). While these plans mostly outline milestones toward college and career goals, in some schools they also incorporate elements of social-emotional development. Efforts to help detect risk factors for substance abuse disorders and to monitor the extent to which resources are in place to serve students would be a productive step forward in response to the current crisis.

For years, Massachusetts residents have exhibited above average rates of substance abuse problems. Diagnosing and treating those with the disorder will help, but ending the epidemic will ultimately require a much heavier dose of prevention. With opioid legislation, public health leaders have a unique opportunity to harness the power of the growing social-emotional learning movement.

Ben Forman


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Mayoral Inaugurations Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of Copy of Getting to Know Gateway City Leaders

Former Fall River city councilor Jasiel Correia, 23, became the youngest mayor in the city’s history when he was sworn in Monday.

Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter said drug abuse and homelessness will be his top priorities as he begins his second term.

Former state Rep. Stephen DiNatale let people know that “Fitchburg is open for business” at his mayoral inauguration, telling attendees that he was going to make Fitchburg a safer, more prosperous city.

In his third inaugural address, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse called for continued innovation and inclusion; values, Morse says, that are the foundation to the city’s progress.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell pledged to continue the fight to improve schools, strengthen neighborhoods, grow the economy, and make city streets safer in his third term.

Former city clerk and ward councilor Linda Tyer was sworn in as Pittsfield’s new mayor on Monday amid expressions of hope for a more inclusive and collaborative city government.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno was sworn in to his fourth term, touting an “unprecedented renaissance” in the city’s future.

Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty began his third term, expressing excitement about the future which “has never been brighter,” touching on economic development, education, public health and safety, and taking advantage of the city’s many “blue spaces” (waterways).  

Housing & Economic Development

Governor Baker signs economic development strategy to increase economic prosperity for all.

MassDevelopment announces new TDI fellows will be heading to Brockton, New Bedford, and Pittsfield.

Springfield Fellow Laura Masulis is profiled by Business West. Don’t miss her upcoming talk on downtown development. And check out the Springfield TDI Innovation District effort and the Haverhill TDI design study and on coUrbanize.

The Brockton 21st Century Corporation is leading the charge for the Working Cities Challenge initiative to address family homelessness in the city.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll delivers a state-of-the-city address in which she announces a partnership with Harvard’s Kennedy School to address the challenges posed by “problem properties.” The program has already been implemented in other Gateway Cities, including Chelsea, Fitchburg, and Lawrence.


The Springfield Empowerment Zone board selects the UP Education Network to manage the underperforming JFK middle school. 

Worcester Polytechnic Institute receives the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation, an award worth $500,000, from the National Academy of Engineering. Thanks Jackie

Students gather with elected officials at Pittsfield City Hall as part of the Youth Leadership Program, a youth development initiative in its sixth year in Berkshire County.

Fitchburg’s Superintendent of Schools Andre Ravenelle is named Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year by the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents (MASS).

Fall River Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown moves on to Barnstable.

More companies compete to lead the search for the next Worcester superintendent after the school committee rebids the contract.

Nellie Mae and the Parthenon Group release a study on the ed tech market for student-centered learning. 

Creative Placemaking 

MassDevelopment’s Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) awards a $250,000 grant to Apollinaire Theatre Company in Chelsea to develop a collaborative work space with local theater companies and artists.

Salem crosswalks win social advocacy award.

Richard Florida finds new proof that the arts stimulate economic growth.

A new report from TDC and the Kresege foundation looks at the opportunity and challenges for arts organizations that acquire low-cost properties.  

Communities & People

Fall River receives a MassRecycle award for progress reducing trash  

An Item editorial praises the behavioral health unit at the Lynn Police Department for treating addicts as people with health problems rather than as criminals.

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