Freshman Seminar: Austin High School (Austin, TX)

R. Keeth Matheny, School-Connect® Model Teacher and Co-author of the Third Edition, is committed to helping his students develop the skills they need to succeed in school and in life. "Emotional skills -- like expressing empathy, managing unhealthy emotions and inducing positive emotions -- are critical for dealing with life," says Matheny. "Most of the biggest mistakes we make in life are when we are 'emotionally hijacked.' If kids grow up lacking these emotional skills, we're going to see increasingly negative and unproductive -- even destructive -- behavior in our schools and communities."

This is why Matheny teaches a semester-long, credit-bearing course for freshmen called "Methods for Academic and Personal Success" (MAPS) at a large urban high school in Austin, Texas. His students, most of whom are labeled "at risk," learn how to organize their time and study effectively, as well as how to manage their emotions and build healthy relationships so that they can better navigate and connect with the world around them. "These are not 'softskills.' In my opinion, these are the most critical skills for students' immediate and long-term success."

MAPS also looks beyond the school years, helping students get ready for the 21st Century workforce, which increasingly depends on applied skills as much as, or more than, knowledge-based skills. "If you really boil it down, most people are hired for their ability to make a professional first impression and demonstrate a work ethic; and most people are fired for their inability to get along with others. These are skills that must be taught." Matheny emphasizes this connection by personally shaking hands with each of his students every day as they enter class.

The results have been impressive. Over a four-year period, academic failures reduced by 41% and discipline referrals by 71% in the freshman class. Dr. Melvin Bedford, assistant principal at Austin High, is very involved with the program and a huge fan. "This program has changed my job," he says. "I used to deal with three to four freshman discipline referrals a day, and now I often go three to four days without a referral."

The rigor of the course is not the material itself; it's the internalization and application of the material that makes it challenging and impactful. Students and their parents regularly report the application of a lesson or skill from class that has enhanced their academic success and improved their relationships.

In SY 2013-2014, MAPS and School-Connect began spreading to other high schools in the district that are beginning to witness similar success. Matheny has presented on social and emotional learning, MAPS, and School-Connect® across the country, including a U.S. Capitol Hill briefing.