Aperture Partner Case Study: Bellevue (WA) School District’s Decade of DESSA Use

Bellevue School District located in Bellevue, Washington, serves almost 18,000 students across nearly 30 schools. Through a 10-year partnership using Aperture Education’s suite of DESSA assessments, the district has gone through a remarkable transformation. One of the priorities in their five-year strategic plan is student well-being. On the journey to continuing to prioritize well-being they have worked with school families and their larger community to build a common, strength-based language to nurture students.  

The Challenge

When the district was in the process of adopting and implementing Tier 1 SEL support, it wanted a tool to measure its effectiveness.  

“We wanted to ensure that we were implementing Tier 1 SEL curriculum and have accurate data to inform our implementation and data cycles,” said Randi Peterson, Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Developer. “It was important for us to have data to inform our MTSS process and student progress. We wanted to ensure our SEL practices and MTSS mirrored our academics. Identifying student strengths and using a strength-based measure was really important to us.” 

The Progress

The district began with a pilot of the DESSA in three of its elementary schools in spring 2013, and in just two years, all 15 elementary schools were using the system. Randi explained the district was looking forward to getting a better understanding of student strengths and the opportunities to build upon the SEL competencies for all students. 

“Our district used data for Tier 1 and MTSS in all other content areas, why not SEL? It was natural for the whole-child approach we were prioritizing. Incorporating SEL helped educators see it was foundational to this approach and how we teach SEL just like we teach math and literacy,” Randi said. 

Keep reading to learn how Bellevue School District: 

Combines Data Collection From Multiple Sources 

Teaches the “Why” of SEL 

Leverages Community Engagement 

Combining Data Collection From Multiple Sources 

Bellevue uses a student survey for 3rd-5th grade students to gather their perspective and then crosswalks the information gathered with the teacher-completed DESSA. 

“We have found this promotes mindful inquiry and deeper conversations with students and families,” said Randi. 

She said that it is especially helpful when a teacher rates a student in the strength range, but a student does not see any social and emotional strengths in themselves. Educators have said it is insightful and empowering when it comes to having conversations with students about their results. 

“It allows our educators to be intentional in helping students see the strengths in themselves. That’s what students remember; their teacher sees they are compassionate, kind people. Sometimes students need someone to just call their strengths out for them.” 

Randi explained that having multiple perspectives and data points has been very valuable. They offer students’ families the option to complete their own at-home DESSA assessment of their child. All of these points of data help educators guide conversations around how a student is showing up at school versus how they are acting when at home. This intentionally promotes collaboration among the family and schools. 

“In some cases, it allows for conversations around self-regulation versus maybe what caregivers may see at home. It has been great to be able to give families some strategies within the Aperture System to help their kiddos. Teachers are already overworked and exhausted. Having something that’s high-quality and evidence-based to share with families to help them grow SEL at home, their own SEL, and to support their child is a win-win.” 

Teaching the “Why” of SEL 

Randi highlighted something that many across the field of education are facing. There is a lack of understanding of what SEL actually is because of outside influences muddying the waters. She explained that having the data from SEL assessment really empowered the K-5 educators in her district to focus on the results to create systems for continuous improvement. 

“Over the last eight years at Bellevue, we’ve seen the number of students in the ‘need for instruction’ range go from 13% to 6%. We’re able to provide those students in need of instruction with the instruction needed. What we’re doing is working,” Randi said. 

And even though they saw a slight increase in need over the past year, she said that the overall reduction in need for instruction shows that the extensive measures they’ve put in place are making an impact in the lives of students, educators, and families. 

“For so long, it’s been SEL is the curriculum, but it’s so much more than that, and there is more than one SEL curriculum out there. At Bellevue, we ask how does SEL work fit into the indicators? As we walk through and think about it, DESSA fits into all of it. The DESSA helps us to leverage strategies for kids who need Tier 2 support and get those interventions in place. It also helps us figure out their strengths and goals, and use them to get students the additional support they need.” 

Randi also appreciated that the “why” behind the impact of SEL can be seen in many ways, not only the quantitative data tracked. She said she thinks of data as buckets: data we can see, data we can hear, data we can count, and data we can feel.  

“We get hung up on data we can count, but it is more than that. It’s how I feel in the building, what I’m seeing, and what I’m hearing. I love to find myself hanging out in the cafeteria or playground. Seeing how kids are able to put skills and practices in place in unstructured settings is the ultimate way to show success. We want them to be independent problem-solvers, regulate their emotions when things don’t go their way, or when they drop their tray in the cafeteria, be able to get up and move forward.” 

Leveraging Community Engagement

Another reason Bellevue has seen so much success in their SEL program is that they have holistically engaged community partners in the work. Randi says that she works closely with after school providers to teach modeling SEL strategies. She stresses how important it is for SEL to continue outside of the school day. 

“Looking at that larger approach, SEL is not just bell to bell. It should be outside of the school day, and in all areas of students’ lives they should have exposure to strength-based SEL. It supports minimizing how often kids have to code switch as they go from before school, to school, to after school care, to home. We’re trying to build a common language and common approach across all areas of students’ lives.” 

Bellevue is very intentional with their work with families. Randi explains that many parents want to learn about SEL because they did not have explicit SEL instruction growing up. She acknowledges that by building the confidence of SEL in teachers, community partners, and families so they are better equipped to support their children.  

“That common message is that in all settings we’re modeling for our kids. Of course, we have to give ourselves grace; there are times when we do it well and times when we don’t. There are going to be times where we want a re-do, but acknowledge when we make mistakes. It shows we’re in community with one another in the learning process.” 

When educators and adults in the lives of students have strong SEL, it makes a difference, and it can really be felt in the schools.  

“We’re so fixated on test scores and numbers, but we need to focus more on the data we can see, hear, and feel. As we’ve been doing this work and diving deeper into SEL we’ve seen an improvement in all of those areas.” 

Looking Forward 

The future of Bellevue School District is bright. Over the past 10 years, the district has been able to build out a comprehensive SEL program with Tier 1 support, Tier 2 support, and Tier 3 support that involves all of the people in students’ lives.  

Randi shared that over the time the district has used the Aperture System they have been able to build out a great standards-aligned toolbox of strategies they leverage whenever a student is showing a need for additional support.  

As the district moves into completing their current five-year plan and looks toward the future, Randi hopes to keep SEL at the center of the district’s work. 

“If students don’t have self-management or self-awareness skills, it’s going to be hard for them to engage in academic learning. SEL really is the foundation, and we have to build onto it to continue to move this work forward. It’s a journey.” 

DESSA-mini progress

About Aperture Education 

Aperture Education empowers over 8,000 schools and out-of-school time programs across North America to measure, strengthen, and support social-emotional competence in K-12 youth and educators. The powerful data districts receive enables education leaders to take strategic action about SEL within their organizations. The Aperture System includes the Educator Social and Emotional Training and Reflection (EdSERT) and DESSA suite of strength-based assessments which is lauded by researchers for its high standards for reliability and validity, and appreciated by educators for its ability to easily and quickly identify each student’s personal social-emotional strengths and areas of needed support. Aperture partners with industry curriculum leaders to deliver research-based, CASEL-informed intervention strategies to bolster specific areas of needed growth. Paired with robust reporting in one easy-to-use system, Aperture is often favored in districts nationwide. Aperture has supported over two million students in their social and emotional growth and continues to develop innovative solutions to bring the whole child into focus. 

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