Tom Davidson, CEO of EverFi, (center) sits with fourth grade students at Kirkpatrick Health & Medical Science Magnet School to discuss the importance of compassion

CLARKSDALE – When Mrs. Leigh Frazier’s fourth grade class at Kirkpatrick Health & Medical Science Magnet School walked into the gym around 8:00 a.m. Sept. 19, they were immediately met with high fives and how are you’s from Tom Davidson, the CEO of a Washington-based education technology company.

After students formed a semi-circle on the floor, their principal SuzAnne Walton, announced that they would be the first class in the country to pilot the Compassion Project, a fairly new online learning program – launched by Davidson’s company EverFi – for second through fourth grades to enhance their social and emotional learning (SEL), specifically placing emphasis on compassion.

Social and emotional learning is when children and adults acquire skills that gives them the ability to make responsible decisions, understand and manage emotions, show and feel empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and set and achieve positive goals, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a policy and research-based group that promotes SEL in education.

“One of the things that we want to do for our students at Kirkpatrick is to try to educate the whole child – not only academically but morally – and try to teach the students the right way to do things … because this is such an important life skill, not only for going through school but for jobs and the rest of their life,” said Walton.

EverFi, an innovative education technology company that empowers K-12, higher education and adult learners, launched the program in August after taking over a year to develop it, said Davidson, one of three co-founders. He went on to say that Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, was instrumental in getting the program off the ground.

The company offers free digital resources and local support in financial education, STEM and career readiness, health and wellness and cultural literacy, to name a few.

Students in Mrs. Leigh Frazier’s class hop on their chromebooks to start their first lesson of The Compassion Project

Creators of the Compassion Project say these skills are usually left out of teachers’ curriculum because teachers place emphasis on core subjects such as math and science. They argue that a similar focus should be placed on social and emotional skills because it increases students own sense of well-being and improves the learning environment, stated in a one-page overview of the course.

“As an education-technology company we’re trying to impact students who don’t succeed outside the classroom and go into rural areas that don’t have the technology or the access,” said Carmen Gross, Jackson-based special projects manager for EverFi.

The program offers 15 lessons that takes about 20 minutes each to finish. The courses align with the state’s educational standards. Some of the topics students will learn are defining empathy and compassion, practicing mindfulness and growth mindset, identifying emotions, and practicing acts of kindness.

After each lesson is complete, students receive a score or grade to reflect how they did. If they aren’t satisfied with their grade, they are able to take the lessons over to score higher. Once the  program is completed, students receive a certificate to recognize their accomplishments.

About 10 years ago when EverFi was a start-up company, it granted teachers in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama, the opportunity to implement its first courses on financial literacy.

“I had this idea, but I didn’t know how to get it going. I drove from Washington, D.C. all the way to Clarksdale,” said Davidson. “I started talking to the people in the schools just like this and I said what is the best way to teach awesome third-graders, fourth-graders, fifth-graders, and high school students about this thing, and how do I build it on a computer that makes sense to them. And you know what? Ten years later, over 40 million kids have used those courses, and it all started in Clarksdale, Mississippi. ”

After that first initial visit, Davidson and his team members came back to Clarksdale five years ago. Because of those relationships he built, Davidson said he came back to allow students in Clarksdale to pilot the Compassion Project first.

In his meeting with students, he stressed the importance of compassion, defining it as seeing someone in need, caring for them, and then doing something about it.

A recent study conducted by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year  showed students who participated in social and emotional learning programs see improvements in grit, growth mindset, and a sense of belonging which correlates to significant gains in grades, attendance, scores on achievement tests, and other academic outcomes.

Although factors outside of the school setting, like parental and peer support, can have influence on the child, researchers have found that in-school factors like teacher support, are the most important in producing improved student achievement.

While it is an educators responsibility to teach students academically, it is also the educators responsibility to teach kids socially said Frazier, adding that integrating social and emotional skills into the day to day learning doesn’t take away from the core subjects, she said.

As her kids grow older, Frazier said hopes her students will look back and remember their time at Kirkpatrick as being loved, being accepted, and being a part of a family.

“I hope they come back one day and say ‘Mrs. Frazier, do you remember we were the first class to ever do that project?’,” she said. “That’s one of the most rewarding things as an educator, seeing our children on down the road, seeing them after they’ve graduated from high school and they’ve moved on to other things, to have them come back and they still remember things you said or did back 10 or 15 years ago.”

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.