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What was behind last week's uproar over social-emotional learning at the Peoria school board meeting?

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Peoria Public Schools YouTube
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Carl Cannon speaks before the Peoria Public Schools board of education on Jan. 24, 2022.

Last week's lengthy Peoria school board meeting mainly revolved around the ongoing debate over adopting a modified academic calendar for the next school year.

But heated moments cropped up during the public comment portion of the meeting on another issue: the district's social-emotional learning programs, and in particular, the ELITE Game Changers program.

ELITE Youth Outreach founder Carl Cannon took issue with recent comments made by union president Jeff Adkins-Dutro in a WCBU interview on his perceived lack of SEL supports in the district.

"My complaint is directed at Mr. Jeff Adkins-Dutro and a couple of others. Mr. Dutro was recently quoted in a WCBU interview stating that the district has no social emotional learning. Well, that's not true. We - stand up ELITE - we are SEL," said Cannon, as a few dozen supporters rose from their seats in the tightly packed boardroom.

NAACP Peoria Branch president Rev. Marvin Hightower called for the Peoria Federation of Teachers to appoint new leadership in light of the comments.

And at one point, a man accused a former teacher's wife of being a racist, leading to a moment of disorder before the school board retook control of the meeting.

Adkins-Dutro didn't respond to the comments publicly at last Monday's meeting. In an interview last week, he said he was blindsided by what happened during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"I was absolutely shocked by what happened. I had not heard from Marvin Hightower with the NAACP even once, nor had I heard from Carl Cannon that he was upset, so when I became the focus of the meeting, I was taken aback," said Adkins-Dutro. He said when he speaks out, it's on behalf of the 1,000 union members he represents, not just himself.

The Peoria Regional Office of Education recently made a compliance visit to ELITE's Game Changers program, which pairs graduates of ELITE's prison Re-Entry program with youth involved in Peoria gangs: the goal being to provide the young men mentorship and a different path forward before they end up incarcerated - or worse.

Hightower said the Game Changers program is a valuable component of SEL programming in Peoria Public Schools, programming which the Peoria NAACP highly values in general.

"It affects our community the most, as the population of Peoria Public Schools is overwhelming majority, are Black students. So of course it serves our community," he said. "Then the bigger picture is sooner or later, both students will become a part of the community. And we have seen the school to prison pipeline and the SEL program, Wraparound Center, and the Game Changers program, and all those in between helped to disrupt that connection."

Cannon, who was unavailable for a WCBU interview, alleged the ROE visit was spurred by "false allegations" leveled by PFT leadership. Adkins-Dutro said he had no personal involvement in leveling those complaints, though he is aware of concerns raised by union membership about the program.

"Some of the problems we were hearing about were students are going to this site. And, you know, teachers didn't really know what it was, why the students were going, how long they were going to be there. They were sending work. The work wasn't being returned with the student," he said. "And, you know, I think it's a program where the students are supposed to come back and better fit into the traditional school environment. And a lot of times they were finding that that was not the case. So those were the the complaints that teachers were bringing to me."

Hightower said he has visited the site himself, and was impressed by what he saw.

"When they asked you who you are they the students will we refer back to them elite and go through the spiel. Very disciplined. I've been through a graduation, very disciplined. 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Instilling in them some values that folks sorely needed, for our youth as well as adults," Hightower said.

Beth Crider, regional superintendent of the Peoria ROE, said in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by WCBU that the office has no record of written complaints about the Game Changers program. She did say "several phone calls" were received about the program, however. It's unclear who made those calls.

For his part, Adkins-Dutro cited Crider's comments last week to the Peoria Journal Star on people needing proper training to conduct SEL work.

"If you're providing SEL services, like trauma informed practices to students, you better have some letters behind your name, meaning you better be a social worker, or a psychologist," he said. "And by the same token, if you're providing those services academically, you better be a certified teacher."

Crider said the ROE requested a site visit to the program, but no formal investigation was conducted, and no formal report was filed.

Hightower said the regional office of education gave largely positive feedback to ELITE on the Game Changers program.

"They liked what they saw, to be able to help change the culture," said Hightower of the ROE visit. "And as Carl said, he said, if there were problems, we'd work on them, and fix them. So that we won't repeat and so that we can make this program better."

Hightower maintained that he believes new leadership would be beneficial for the union. He said he believes that would bring new ideas and vision to the table. Adkins-Dutro said he retains the support of the union to remain in leadership, with many members reaching out to him to express such following last week's meeting.

Hightower said the Peoria NAACP backs the students, superintendent, school board, and teachers - but he said the union should have scheduled a meeting with the concerned parties rather than going to the media. Adkins-Dutro said the union only goes public with concerns after exhausting all other channels.

Both Adkins-Dutro and Hightower said some sort of meeting to hash out the differences would be beneficial in moving forward.

"(That's) the next step I believe that needs to take place. It's not about no animosity or anything of that nature, enemies one side against the other side. We're in this thing together," said Hightower. "And I heard someone say when we all do better, we all do better."

"You know, as teachers, we're very skilled at taking a beating one day and sleeping and waking up the next day. It's a new day, and we're looking for a new path forward," said Adkins-Dutro. "So we do have a couple of our officers reaching out to the NAACP to see if we can get a dialogue started because I think their perception of me is based upon a lot of misinformation."

Adkins-Dutro said Superintendent Dr. Sharon Kherat reached out to arrange a meeting between union leadership, district administration, and Cannon. He also said the PFT plans to bargain on SEL provisions in its contract negotiations, which starts next month.

A Peoria Public Schools spokesperson did not return a comment and interview request for this article.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.