Jackson Sprayberry

Social and Emotional Development in Your School Culture

Dr. Catherine Burns
Chief Academic Officer

Does Social and Emotional Development Have a Place in Your School Culture?

Transformational school leaders know that you need to get culture right before you will see gap-closing academic gains.

To this end, schools are increasingly adopting responsive approaches to discipline that are centered around social and emotional development. By placing as great an emphasis on character development as academics, schools set students up for lifelong success. This focus on social emotional growth differs greatly from the “no excuses” discipline method, which is considered by some to be overly-rigid.

One school investing in the character development of its students is Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, Tennessee. The network currently educates approximately 1,000 students at two different middle schools. About 60 percent of Valor students are minorities, while about 40 percent are white. About two-thirds of students are at or below the federal poverty line, while the other third are above.

Valor Principal Jackson Sprayberry says his schools’ holistic approach to education is particularly important in a school network he describes as “intentionally-diverse.”


Jackson Sprayberry
Jackson Sprayberry

I think about how hard it was for me [as a young person] to learn how to have conversations across lines of difference,” he told Accelerate Institute in a recent interview. “When I think about our students getting to start those conversations, in a very intentional way, … I’m just inspired and motivated to know that they’re going to be so much further ahead than me and so many other adults.

This fall, Valor will take a big step forward in advancing its mission. The network will open its first high school with an inaugural freshman class of approximately 225 students.

In our interview with Sprayberry, we discussed his schools’ challenges, how he uses the Accelerate Framework to drive change at Valor, and what makes the schools network such a special place. The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

AI: What is the most pressing issue the Valor network faces right now?

JS: The most pressing issue is—“How do we navigate being an intentionally diverse, equitable and inclusive community?” … It’s easier to meet the needs of a given population if your school is more homogenous. But our classrooms, … we’ve got students who are reading at a 3rd grade level in a room with students who are reading at a 12th grade level. And so, “How do you differentiate there? How do you meet the needs of the range of learners inside of that classroom?

As well as curriculum choices. We’ve got some families who are on different parts of the political spectrum and not all of our choices make everyone happy all of the time. Our response—or lack thereof—to current events, or the way that we talk about historical events inside of a social studies classroom don’t always make our families… satisfied. … As a network that’s primary function is to help kids live inspired and purposeful lives, where do we draw our line in the sand? Where do we openly talk about things and where do we not? So [it’s crucial to be] really specific about what “diverse, equitable and inclusive” means to us, and … [get] really comfortable saying, “We aren’t the perfect school for anyone, but we’re trying to be the best school for everyone.

AI: This may be a difficult question, because you have a unique set of challenges, but how do you use the Accelerate Framework as the transformational leader of intentionally-diverse schools?

JS: I think that the same line of thinking that goes into the Change Management objective in terms of strategic planning and if you think about the drivers within that and thinking about the main goal as being clear, … I think inside of our Institute Framework it is often times a very internal-facing idea. But it’s just as important that the main goal of the school and the plan to accomplish it is clearly articulated not just to staff, but to our families who are choosing to go here since we are a school of choice.

I think we have to be really clear and then articulate it to our families. I think the driver around the staff being bought into the mission and vision of this school is important. Because if maybe we don’t go liberal enough or we don’t go conservative enough we could have some of our faculty that disagree, which could impact various aspects of their work. And so I think it’s important that they’re bought into the mission and the vision as it relates to “diverse, equitable and inclusive” and that we are constantly course-correcting the other drivers inside of Change Management. [And] making sure that we really are living up to what we said diverse, equitable and inclusive means to us.

The community here are people who are committed to not only growing kids academically, but growing kids as people and as humans.

AI: How would you describe the Valor community to an outsider? 

JS: We are a group of people who are committed to the idea that we have to grow students and staff [through] a whole-human approach in heart, mind, body and spirit. …

We are the top 2 non-selective middle schools in Nashville last year and we were the only 2 non-selective schools in the entire state in the top 5 percent for both growth and achievement on the state tests last year. And the reason why we believe that is true is because kids are working on developing who they are as people. And so the community here are people who are committed to not only growing kids academically, but growing kids as people and as humans and doing the really rough, hard, tough work to learn what it means to be more kind and more curious and more diverse and more joyful and showing more integrity and determination. We are truly committed to growing as people.

AI: Why do you think that the students that are struggling academically at Valor are struggling? 

JS: For some context, we’ve had some of our families of our top-performing students who were initially really worried about the fact that [we] weren’t tracking kids. They were like, “Well if my kid’s reading on a 12th grade level in 5th grade, and they’re in a room with a kid who’s reading at a 2nd grade level, then I don’t know that you can meet the need of my kid. Can’t you just have a group that is all upper-level readers, and then the other ones?

What we actually had found last year is if you look at our quintiles, our bottom quintile and our top quintile both grew at the same rate using TBOX—which is the growth measure that Tennessee uses. And our top quintile of students actually grew at a higher rate than MEGs, which is a test in magnet schools. And so we actually found that by having them together they grew at the same rate and actually both benefitted. …

I guess the reason why the students who aren’t struggling aren’t struggling is because they see what an absolute bar of excellence [we have], and try to rise to that. [They] have examples in class—people they’re sitting beside—to [see] what the true bar of excellence is. I think part of the reason why students struggle academically here could be linked to time with us; if their educational trajectory up until they came to us hasn’t been what they deserve.

AI:  What makes Valor such a special place to work?

JS: We truly do walk our talk. Our adults have to do the same exact social-emotional curriculum and the same badge work that our students do. … That’s just something that we do as an organization because we do truly believe that the only way that we’re going to be able to do this work [with] our students is if we’re doing it together and alongside them.

I think that this is the only place that I’ve ever been that truly embodies what it means to want everyone collectively to be better people, and then actually lives it out. It’s not just like you’ve got commitments on a wall, or core values on a wall that, like, look good. … I think it’s just special because we truly do care about human development, which is an impetus for academic achievement for kids.

AI:  What do you like to do with your time when you’re not making a difference at Valor?

JS: I love responding to emails while I watch Premier League soccer on the weekends in the morning. I also every morning before school—and actually on the weekends too—get up and I do pour-over coffee in my Chemex [Coffeemaker] with some Intelligentsia [coffee] from Chicago. I do that every morning in the Chemex and then listen to NPR.


If you are looking to transform your school climate away from “no excuses” and leverage the powerful, mutually reinforced relationship between academics and social and emotional learning check out Valor Collegiate Academies online and schedule a visit.

Recently, Catherine was appointed as a Commissioner for the Illinois State Charter School Commission (ISCSC). Established in 2011 by the Illinois Board of Education, the Commission is an independent body with statewide chartering jurisdiction and authority. Members of the Commission have extensive experience in education, particularly with school development and management–and that’s exactly why Catherine is perfect for this new responsibility. As a Commissioner, Catherine reviews charter applications and provides guidance to candidates to help increase the quality of applications and raise the level of professional practice in the Illinois charter sector. She is very excited about this opportunity because she can make an impact on students and families throughout Illinois and help influence professional practice in the charter sector, proving more quality options for students. Catherine has dedicated her life to helping others realize their full potential. Because of that, she is a thought leader on leadership development, executive coaching, and team management. She plays a critical role in developing leaders to hold the mindset and skill set to be transformational school leaders in the toughest environments in the nation. During her highly-successful 15-year career, Catherine has worked with over 50 leaders across the country from high-needs cities such as Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Jose. It is through this work that she and these leaders have founded and turned around schools to provide opportunities for the highest-needs students in this country, dramatically changing the trajectory of their lives. Catherine lives in Chicago with her son and enjoys every minute of living in such a diverse and lively city.