NSBA’s Annual Conference and Exposition for Public Education Leaders is transformed and online this year, April 8 to 10. In this preview of the NSBA 2021 Online Experience, we share insights from some of the notable thought leaders and keynotes presenting at our event.

To learn more about the world-class programming, inspirational speakers, top education solution providers, and innovative networking opportunities available—and to register—go to the NSBA Conference Page at https://nsba. org/Events/NSBA-2021-Online-Experience.

Shawn Achor

Optimism is contagious

shawn achor

Shawn Achor, a pioneer in the science of happiness, is the CEO of GoodThink Inc., where he researches and teaches about positive psychology. He will be the keynote speaker on Saturday, April 10, from 1 to 2 p.m.

How did you begin studying happiness?

I was studying Christian and Buddhist Ethics at Harvard Divinity School and asking questions about how the lens through which we view the world changes our actions in it. That’s when I found out that people in the psychology department at Harvard were asking the same questions in a new field called positive psychology. Growing up with a neuroscientist father, I was drawn toward using science to test ideas and concepts we’ve been wrestling with for thousands of years. At that same time, I went through two years of depression, which meant that not only was I learning about positive interventions in the psych lab, I was applying them in my own life. When the banking collapse occurred, that led me to bring that knowledge outside of academia to companies and schools.

What do you say to people who might feel guilty about focusing on happiness at a time when so many others are suffering?

At first blush, it sounds noble to think that we will not feel happy when others are suffering. However, this line of thinking breaks down quickly. Throughout human history, we have had ills from slavery to poverty to abuse to inequality. So that thinking devolves into us never, ever finding happiness as humans, which is both empirically false and emotionally debilitating. But more importantly, if someone on my street is suffering, it does not serve them at all for me to put the brakes on my joy and meaning and connection.

Just the opposite is true—when I’m feeling negative or down or discouraged or disconnected, I don’t have the energy or grit to help others. In our research, we have found that optimism, joy, meaning, and social connection are the very fuel that allows us to improve our decision-making, raise educational outcomes, improve living standards, and care for those in need. So, I would say, do not feel guilty about pursuing happiness. Intentionally seek it out. Only then can you use that optimism as fuel to make this a better world. We need more champions who are positive and hopeful and who have the energy to help right now more than ever.

Does the research show a correlation between raising the level of happiness with school improvement and academic success?

Honestly, the answer is so resoundingly “yes” that it is hard to include all the connections and justifications for it in short form. There is not only a correlation between happiness and academic performance, but there is causation. When a teacher, administrator, or student creates a positive habit that impacts their optimism levels, we see dramatic improvements in test scores, grades, attendance, teacher turnover, depression rates, eating disorder rates, and disciplinary actions required.

Specifically, when we raised the levels of optimism of the teachers and administrators (note: our intervention was not aimed at the students) at the poorest school district in Iowa, for example, we saw a 3.5-point increase in students’ ACT scores in three years. Outside of Chicago, we worked with Schaumburg District 54, with teachers, administrators, and students. The increase in happiness among those groups helped fuel a movement of the school district’s Illinois academic test scores from the 84th percentile to the top 2 percent in the nation.

What should conference attendees know about the Orange Frog positive psychology intervention work?

I have had the privilege to partner with schools across the country, from the public schools in Flint, Michigan, to schools in the wake of school shootings, to impoverished school districts struggling with illiteracy. For my research, I use a narrative-based positive psychology intervention called the Orange Frog, which involves a one- to two-day initial workshop to deliver the ideas and create workflows and routines that allow for sustained positive change. We use the Orange Frog story to bring the ideas to life in the classroom centered on creating positive habits like gratitude or attention training. The goal of Orange Frog is to provide evidence-based emotional and social learning to the providers of social-emotional education (i.e., the teachers and administrators).

Initially, I was so excited that by raising optimism and social connection levels amongst the educators and administrators that we saw such a significant impact upon students’ test scores. Now what provides me with the most hope in the midst of what our schools have faced is that positive psychology interventions like the Orange Frog don’t just impact academic scores. We are finding depression rates dropping nearly 30 percent. We see disciplinary actions in the schools dropping by just over 50 percent. We see teachers in tough districts staying longer, and burnout rates were cut in half. Both of my parents are educators. My mom was a public high school teacher for 30 years. I wanted to provide support to the teachers, not burden them with more to do. By creating positive work routines together, we found that not only were the educators happier, but also the entire school districts were thriving.

In Flint, after the Orange Frog training, we did a day of giving back to the community. Bus drivers, librarians, and teachers provided random acts of kindness at hospitals, for road construction crews, even at the DMV. And the following year, those groups wanted to join in the random act of kindness day and do kind things back for the school. Optimism is not only possible; it is contagious.

Sonia Nazario

Serving migrant students

Award-winning journalist, author, and humanitarian Sonia Nazario has written extensively from Latin America and about Latinos in the U.S. She is the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members (NHC) Signature Speaker on Thursday, April 8, from 3:35 to 4:25 p.m.

It was about 20 years ago that you first documented the harrowing experience of a Honduran boy’s struggle to reunite with his mother in the U.S. Is the story you told in Enrique’s Journey (a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper series and a bestselling book) still relevant?

Unfortunately, this story is more relevant than ever. When Enrique made his journey from Central America to the U.S., fewer than 7,000 immigrant children traveled north alone each year and were apprehended by border patrol at our southern border. By fiscal 2019, that number had risen ten-fold, to 76,020. While the numbers eased in 2020 as central American governments sealed borders and the U.S. rejected all asylum claims, most expect to see a big surge of migrants—and migrant children like Enrique— this spring. If anything, in recent years [until the COVID pandemic], the flow of migrants has skewed heavily towards women and children. And, a majority of migrants no longer come from Mexico but from Central America.

The dangers these children face have changed little from what Enrique endured, including bandits, gangs, corrupt cops, narcotics cartels trying to rape, rob, beat them, kill them, and deport them. They still travel clinging to the tops and sides of freight trains. There is one big change since my book was published. Before, most of these children made this journey to reunify with a mother who had left them behind. Today, many are still trying to reach mothers they haven’t seen in years, but the main motivator is that someone in their home country is trying to kill them. My book was updated in 2014. While Enrique made his journey some time ago, his story continues to evolve, and updates about him tell us a lot about what migrants now face in the U.S. More recently, in Florida, Enrique faced possible deportation away from his U.S.-born son—a different kind of parent-child separation so many migrants have faced recently under Presidents Obama and Trump.

Are you optimistic that the new Biden-Harris administration will fix the nation’s immigration policy?

Optimistic is not a term journalists use often! President Biden has clearly taken steps to reverse some of the most heinous, cruel policies under President Trump. I applaud that. President Biden has a lot on his plate. We’ll see how much of his political capital he is willing to spend on this issue. A friend, an immigration lawyer, once told me: immigration—like abortion or guns—is a wedge issue. Wedge issues aren’t meant to be resolved. They are meant to be used by both sides politically to rile their respective bases. People have migrated since the beginning of time, and that will continue. But I believe we can keep migration to reasonable levels by bringing about some reforms, which I will discuss in my address. I also believe we must help change the narrative. Migrants shouldn’t be portrayed as rapists and criminals. I believe overall, migrants have been a force that has helped this country immeasurably. They bring that special sauce—grit, determination, a willingness to leave all they know and love to start anew and work hard in a strange land—that has lifted this country and helped make it great. Telling that story is what all of us must do.

What do you want school board members and attendees to take from your presentation?

I want them to better understand and serve the migrant students in their districts and classrooms. I want to show them the trauma these students have faced in their home countries, on the journey here, and once in the United States. I plan to go through a half dozen things they and their districts can do to serve these students better. One in four students in today’s public schools is an immigrant or a child of an immigrant. For these students to truly progress, these traumas must be understood and addressed head-on.

This session is sponsored by the National Hispanic Council of School Board Members (NHC).

Stephen R. Sroka

The power of many

Adolescent health expert Stephen R. Sroka is passionate about the power of relationships to improve outcomes for students. President of Health Education Consultants and an adjunct assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Sroka is the National American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) Council of School Board Members Signature Speaker on Friday, April 9, from 3:35 to 4:25 p.m.

Why has the theme of your public presentations shifted in recent years?

I have spoken worldwide with “The Power of One” message, and how one person can make a difference. I describe my life journey from living in poverty, being labeled “retarded,” failing the third grade, crippled in a high school fight, and living with ADHD and dyslexia, to being inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, awarded the Person of the Year for the International Association for Truancy and Dropout Prevention, and receiving the first-ever American Public Health Association’s School Health Leader Award.

Five years ago, I died while presenting a school in-service. Two SROs, a principal, and others saved my life and changed my message. I now talk about how you need “The Power of Many”—how it takes a team to make a lasting difference for kids (or to keep you alive in a life-threatening health emergency). Research-based and reality-driven, my presentation offers honesty, humor, and hope. After my cardiac arrest, I realized that “The Power of One” was never enough. I needed “The Power of Many” to achieve everything that I ever accomplished. We all do. I always did; I just didn’t know it. I now believe that one person can make a lasting difference with the power of many, and that is why I am an educator.

What is your message to school leaders as they work to support students during the coronavirus pandemic?

My message to school leaders is to have the courage to lead in the face of adversity. My presentation will bring you up to date with the coronavirus, including the science and practical strategies to manage the COVID-19 threat in your professional and personal life. I will offer lessons learned about life and death and how to develop your own personal warrior aura to be fearless in the face of adversity, whether it be with the coronavirus, death, or making sure your students are safe and healthy and ready to learn tomorrow. It is an uncertain time where social-emotional learning is paramount for students and staff because, for some, what is measured is treasured. But, unfortunately, not everything that counts can be counted. Sometimes, feelings are more important than facts.

We need more mental health professionals in the schools: counselors, social workers, psychologists, and trained resource officers. And perhaps most importantly, please take care of yourself. You cannot be a positive school leader if you are not there 100 percent, physically, mentally, and socially every day.

You are focused on at-risk students. Where should schools begin to change the outcome for students who, as you say, often “do not speak up or act up, they just shut up”?

I have worked with at-risk students in diverse environments from the inner-city to wealthy suburbs and private schools, as well as on reservations across the country. Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed care will be needed more than before after COVID. Many students in all communities are invisible and hide their concerns. As one student told me, “You must be the voice for kids like me, who do not have the strength to cry for help.” The foundation to change all students’ outcome is to build trusted relationships through the 4 Cs: communication, collaboration, cultural sensitivity, and caring. I have facilitated many crisis interventions. Here are some tips for school leaders in crisis situations, as well as in everyday interactions: Keep routines. Assure kids they are safe. Control your emotions. Model good behavior. Offer age-appropriate advice. Look, listen, then speak with hope, honesty, and kindness.

This session is sponsored by the American Indian/Alaska Native Council of School Board Members (AIAN).

Eddie Glaude Jr.

Chance for a miracle

Eddie Glaude Jr. is chair of the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University. A bestselling author and widely followed political and social commentator, he is the National Black Council of School Board Members (NBC) Signature Speaker on Saturday, April 10, from 2:15 to 3:05 p.m.

Why did you focus on the novelist and essayist James Baldwin for your most recent book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s American and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own?

I have been reading Baldwin for close to 30 years. And I knew he struggled with a sense of despair and disillusionment as he confronted America’s betrayal of the Black freedom movement. I want to draw on how he picked up the pieces and continued to fight for a more just America. So, I explored what he called “the ruins” of his work, and it was there that I found Begin Again.

How do you remain hopeful for this country given recent events such as the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, overwhelmingly disproportionate death and despair during the pandemic, and the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol?

After the murder of Dr. King, Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street, his fourth nonfiction book: “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away. Incontestably, alas, most people are not, in action, worth very much; and yet, every human being is an unprecedented miracle. One tries to treat them as the miracles as they are, while trying to protect oneself against the disasters they’ve become.” Baldwin was right. Human beings are, at once, disasters and miracles. Nevertheless, my hope rests with us. Because if we show up and fight with everything we have, we have a chance for a miracle.

What advice do you have for school districts and school leaders working to dismantle systemic racism and injustices in their public schools?

Commit yourselves to educating ALL our children. Educate with the idea of character in mind. So, we have to tell the truth about who we are as a nation. That truth, I believe, will release our children into being different kinds of people—perhaps people genuinely committed to the
idea of a multiracial democracy.

This session is sponsored by the National Black Council of School Board Members (NBC).

Tony Plana

The power of arts education

Tony Plana is a versatile actor, director, producer, and education activist. He co-founded and was producing artistic director of East LA Classic Theatre (ECT) for over 20 years. His adaptations of classic Shakespearean plays were specifically conceived for students with little or no theater-going experience. They were set against curriculum-relevant historical backgrounds that served as catalysts for studying psychology, race and cultural relations, and world history.

For more than 40 years, you have played a vast array of characters on television, in motion pictures, and on stage. How have you adapted to so many different roles and avoided typecasting?

This question goes to the heart of what makes me most proud. Having auditioned and been hired as a variety of characters across the socioeconomic and professional spectrum has been a deeply satisfying accomplishment, especially when roles evolved beyond stereotypes. Pondering the question over the years, it has become clear that the answer is found in the extraordinary circumstances that forged whatever talent God provided.

The first significant factor is having had to seek U.S. political asylum as a Cuban refugee during the height of the Cold War in 1960. What happens to an eight-year-old when he is unexpectedly extracted from everything that's familiar: his extended family, his friends, his neighborhood, his Catholic school, his Church, his Cub Scout troop, his customs, his music, his food, his language? Everything that defines his cultural and religious identity is plunged into the chaos and struggle of being poor and different in a complex culture with a strange new language. Adaptability is what happens, and it becomes the virtue of survival. This capacity to be malleable, to quickly learn how to assess a new environment, connect to a particular situation, identify with the needs of a character, and integrate effectively, was formed in those early years of exile and has been key to my acting process.

The second key factor has been the perennial, forty-year battle with Hispanic stereotypes. When I started my career in the mid-seventies, it was almost tragically comical how limited in scope the characters were that we are allowed to interpret. We all paraded through a revolving door of criminal roles: gangsters, illegals, dealers, and pimps with the occasional exception. We were fewer in numbers then because there were fewer, less attractive opportunities, and yet we embraced it all by calling ourselves "The Usual Suspects." If you wanted to be a working actor, you had to compete for the jobs that were available or not work at all. When things started to change and the variety of roles evolved from criminal or working class to more white-collared professionals, my desire to expand would kick in. Through my education and professional training, I was able to realize a wide range of characters from a satirical Mexican bandit in Three Amigos! to the Secretary of State on The West Wing.

Finally, especially when speaking to young audiences, I often attribute this diversity to considering my profession as a skill that must be studied and practiced, not unlike more traditional pursuits like engineering, medicine, and teaching. Education has been the key to playing characters that come from different sections of the socioeconomic strata. It has allowed me to identify with characters from different backgrounds and feel comfortable navigating across income and educational environments.

How has your own immigrant experience inspired your work today with students?

My family and I will always be grateful for the generous welcome and support we received from both the U.S. government and Catholic Charities, providing everything from housing, food, clothing, to an education. Those challenging beginnings as an immigrant and an English learner have always defined me and compelled me to help others in similar situations. The challenges of being ripped out of your familiar culture when very young and thrust unexpectedly into a new language and a massively complex, pluralistic environment is a trauma that defines you. Confronting poverty, marginalization, and family dysfunction are challenges that can either make you or break you. Overcoming these issues has deepened my connection with those less fortunate and strengthened the call to lend a hand. In the mid-nineties, feeling more established in my professional career, I looked for ways to contribute. Steeped in Shakespeare through my training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, I explored ways of introducing underserved students of color to theater and the Bard's greatest hits. We incorporated musical adaptations that were culturally and thematically relatable and actors of color, generally excluded from interpreting classical material. This project became the East LA Classic Theatre. For over twenty years traveling productions and theatrical language learning workshops impacted over 250,000 students throughout Southern California.

What do you want conference attendees to remember about the importance of exposing students to the arts, especially students in communities who may not get that opportunity?

Research in ArtsEdSearch reveals how the arts are a key to bridging the achievement gap in school. Arts bolster skills demanded of a 21st-century workforce and enrich the lives of young people and communities. They prepare students for success in school, work, and life by boosting math and literacy achievement, strengthening perseverance, and facilitating cross-cultural understanding.

A 2012 report from the National Endowment for the Arts showed that by nearly every indicator studied, a student from a low-socioeconomic (SES) background with a high-arts educational experience significantly outperformed peers from a low-arts, low-SES background, closing (and in some cases eliminating) the gap that often appears between low-SES students and their more advantaged peers.

The arts don't just impact standardized test scores, though the report does show, for example, that low-SES eighth-grade students who have a history of high arts engagement have higher science and writing scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than those who do not. And high school students from the same background with this type of arts engagement had better GPAs than their low-arts, low-SES peers (and in some instances, than all students.)

According to the Arts in Education Partnership's report entitled Preparing Students for the Next America, The Benefits of an Arts Education, "Creativity is among the top ranking of "in demand" qualities. Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that creativity is central to the U.S.'s role as a global leader. Ninety-seven percent of business leaders agreed that creativity is of increasing importance in the workplace. However, 85 percent of employers seeking creative candidates had trouble finding qualified applicants."

This session is sponsored by the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE).

(As part of the NSBA 2021 Online Experience, registrants can attend all Equity Council sessions at no additional charge.)

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