THE BOSTON TEACHERS UNION recently joined the chorus of educational and civic leaders calling for better ways of addressing students’ comprehensive needs so that they are ready to learn and engage in school. From Oakland, California’s investment in community schools that bring services like health care and afterschool programs on site, to New York City’s investment of $773 million in school renewal, including community partnerships with mental health clinics, communities everywhere are struggling to meet the more complex and more intensive needs that students bring to the schoolhouse door.
Over the last decade in Massachusetts, more students are homeless, living in deep poverty, and experiencing social-emotional challenges. Today, almost 48 percent of all public school students in the Commonwealth are deemed “high needs” by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In Boston, the union is calling “to secure our students’ mental, physical and emotional health,” by providing more school nurses, guidance counselors, and social-emotional supports for students, including improved access to social workers and mental health counselors.
Addressing students’ physical and emotional well-being makes sense. In fact, the new Boston Public Schools superintendent, Brenda Cassellius, agrees. Before being named to the position, she said, “we haven’t really taken the responsibility to coordinate all of the other social services pieces. I think it’s our responsibility to do both the in-school and out-of-school factors.”
We now know that two-thirds of the variance in student achievement is predicted by out-of-school factors, not in-school factors. And as the Globe recently reported, current reforms and efforts to improve student learning outcomes are challenged. Studies from Harvard and Stanford University show that the achievement gap between low-income children and their better-off peers is at least as wide today as it was 50 years ago.
Drawing on insights from developmental science about what all students need to learn and thrive, some efforts to address the impacts of poverty and other adverse experiences on student learning are getting results. Now called “integrated student support” – school-based systems for addressing both academic and non-academic barriers to achievement – these approaches were the subject of a 2017 study by Child Trends which found growing evidence of a positive impact.
The most robust evidence base is from a program started in Boston Public Schools called City Connects. Housed in the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development, where I work, City Connects has created a systemic approach to student support that results in every student in a school receiving a customized plan of supports and opportunities every year. This could mean eyeglasses and food on weekends for one child, and a mental health referral and a tutor for another.
The result is that students demonstrate better effort, better grades, better attendance, and better academic outcomes long after they leave a City Connects elementary school. Studies have found that students close up to two-thirds of achievement gaps in 8th grade and are about half as likely to drop out of high school. Many of these benefits hold for students especially at risk for school failure, including students learning English and black and Latino boys.
The City of Salem now has school social workers and counselors implementing the City Connects model in each of its K-8 schools. Supported by a structured practice, professional development, coaching, and a technology system, last year Salem Public Schools created 3,091 personalized plans for each and every student. They connected these students to over 27,000 services provided by 110 local community agencies. YMCAs, community health centers, arts programs, and local businesses all play a role in providing resources, relationships, and opportunities to help students grow and learn. Leveraging these community partnerships and supports are the key to building effective systems of integrated student supports.
There is a financial argument for this approach as well. A recent presentation at the State House highlighted research by the Columbia University Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education. First, effective integrated student supports benefits taxpayers. For every dollar spent to support children and families with education, health and mental health services, social services, and youth development opportunities coordinated through the City Connects model, $3 in benefits are returned. By creating the opportunity for students to improve academic skills and complete high school, participants in City Connects are more likely to be employed and contribute to the tax base, and less likely to become incarcerated or receive welfare. Second, it would cost taxpayers little to gain a lot more. Economists compared what schools typically spend on student support and compared that to the costs of implementing an effective integrated student support approach. Though integrated student support would cost slightly more, economists estimate that for every dollar over current expenditures, $24 in benefits would be returned to society.
If Massachusetts is to make progress in closing persistent academic achievement gaps, addressing the social-emotional and physical wellbeing of students is critical. We must be willing to think beyond the traditional paradigm and to increase our investments in programs that will improve the lives of students and families both inside and outside of schools.
Boston’s teachers know this all too well.
What we are learning from effective models of integrated student support is that how and why schools connect students to comprehensive supports and enrichments is key to making a difference. Reviewing and understanding the strengths and needs of each child, developing a tailored plan of supports and opportunities that meet the needs of each student and her family, and tracking service delivery, follow up, and outcomes, are critical to a systemic approach to student support that can transform educational opportunity and life-long outcomes.
Mary Walsh, PhD, is director of the Center for Optimized Student Support and City Connects. The Center for Optimized Student Support (COSS) uses research and data to identify and evaluate strategies that successfully transform schools and communities into systems of opportunity for all students. Under the center’s umbrella, City Connects puts research into practice by providing a network of care and supports around each individual student to ensure that they are ready to learn and engage in school.