Supporting Students Away from Classroom


It's 7:30 a.m. on the cold morning in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The sun is barely within the horizon and students haven't yet reached the Crossroads Preparatory Academy charter school, but Crystalle Green is already establishing coffee, orange juice, and an array of LaMar's doughnuts, a local favorite.

It's all part of the job for Green, an old teacher turned site coordinator for Communities in Schools, a nationwide nonprofit \”integrated student support\” organization. Crossroads, which operates three charter schools in Kansas City, partners with Communities in Schools of Mid-America to supply social services to its students, either directly or by connecting all of them with existing programs from our community. Green works onsite in a wide-ranging role, from giving out toiletries to counseling students with behavioral challenges. Today, that partnership takes the form of \”Motivation Monday,\” in which the Crossroads teenage students is going to be greeted by a number of young professional men from the community recruited to mingle and inspire at the start of your day.

After the scholars, who are in grades 7 through 11, have passed the gauntlet of fist bumps, high-fives, and snacks, they walk past Green. She greets them:

\”I love your coat!\”

\”I need to visit you prior to the end during the day!\”

\”Oh, so just because you have a new haircut you believe you don't need to say good morning in my experience?\”

Many come up and hug her.

Green doesn't stop moving during an hours-long visit. After she ensures someone requires a picture of the Motivational Monday festivities, she pokes her head into a passionate \”restorative space\” the college has put aside for students with behavior issues to ascertain if anyone on her behalf caseload is within there. Then her cell phone buzzes having a text: a student is having a rough morning, so she constitutes a note to allow the lady's teacher know they will be meeting for the first couple of minutes of second period. She even pops in to the previous couple of minutes of the music class to become listed on students in singing the ultimate chorus of Leonard Cohen's \”Hallelujah.\” And that is all in addition to meeting individually with the six students with that day's counseling schedule.

This may be the nitty-gritty of integrated student supports, which try to address barriers to gaining knowledge from students' lives beyond school, for example homelessness, mental health issues, or food insecurity. In such programs, an onsite coordinator like Green can serve as hallway cheerleader, listening ear, and point of connection to social services along with other community resources, in addition to implementing schoolwide programming directed at boosting attendance, persistence, and academic success.

While these interventions aren't new, their profile is rising because the 2021 passage from the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which for the first time specifically encouraged districts to supply integrated student supports and allowed more federal dollars to cover them. But a detailed consider the research on their effectiveness reveals an open question: while integrated supports may help meet students’ emotional and physical needs, remarkable ability to improve student learning remains unproven.

Communities in Schools is one of the nation's oldest and largest providers of integrated student supports, also known as \”wraparound services.\” Started in New York City in the 1970s, the company now works with a lot more than 2,300 schools in 25 states and the District of Columbia. Its board of directors is led by casino magnate Elaine Wynn and includes former federal education secretary Arne Duncan.

The model is straightforward: Communities in Schools recruits, trains, and places \”site coordinators\” in schools (typically high-poverty campuses where student performance is low), who usually work full-time at the school and fasten students to community resources available to them. This might include medical and dental care, mental health services, basic needs like food or shelter, academic enrichment programs, tutoring, and mentoring. Its services typically cost around $200 per student per school year.

Communities in Schools also relies on site coordinators like Green as a way to connect local schools using the overall organization, which functions like a federation of 131 \”affiliate\” nonprofits implementing the model. The nation's organization will occasionally bring in supports or programs that do not already exist in needy communities, and also works to evaluate interventions and inform local partners about better practices. Its revenue comes from a combination of sources: about 60 % originates from public dollars, for example district budgets and federal funding in the Education and Health insurance and Human Services departments, contributing to 40 % originates from fundraising, including from supporters like the Wallace Foundation and company gifts like a $30 million grant by pharmaceutical firm AbbVie.

At Crossroads, Green works with 65 students, ending up in each at least once per month; setting goals with this student for either behavioral, academic, or attendance improvement; and tracking their progress toward those goals. She also does small-group sessions with multiple students in her caseload who might have similar needs.

Her efforts target student needs through the school: she's a spreadsheet of local community-service providers and connects students to mental health counseling, food banks, crisis intervention, or perhaps a host of other supports. Onsite, she keeps a stash of hygiene products, school supplies, shoes, and extra uniform pants. And since the school has set improving student behavior as its overall goal, Green has implemented a schoolwide rewards system that includes letting students earn a rest from their uniforms on \”dress down\” days; a lunch buddies program to inspire students to socialize; \”just because\” days, when students get rewards \”just because\”; and social events like dances to assist students interact with their school in positive ways.

Similar types of programs are now being implemented across the country. A significant growth of wraparound services is underway in New York City, the country's largest school district, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has built 239 \”community schools\” to offer health and social services which will cost $198.6 million and serve more than 100,000 students this school year. Philanthropies have supported similar efforts on the smaller scale, including grants through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which this past year gave $150,000 to 10 coordinators of wraparound services across the nation included in its Together for Students initiative. The Ballmer Group, founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, has provided broadly to such initiatives, including $15 million to Communities in Schools to target dropout-prevention efforts.

The growth isn't any surprise to Heather Clawson, executive vice president for research, learning, and accreditation of Communities in Schools.

\”Student supports happen to be a 'nice to possess,'\” she says. However, \”it is no longer a nice to possess. It is an essential a part of educating our kids for the future.\”

The impact of integrated student supports is usually obvious with regards to meeting students' immediate needs for food or medical care. But the larger-scale goal of such programs is to improve students' long-term academic and personal success, and in those terms, their effectiveness is less clear. Large-scale evaluations of wraparound programs up to now show only small advantages to student achievement, at best.

Surveys of research findings by Child Trends in 2021 and 2021 reported \”a growing evidence base\” for such interventions and noted researchers' optimism regarding their effectiveness; however, researchers figured \”the evidence isn't yet complete\” and noted the requirement for more in depth study. The updated 2021 report also looked in-depth at eight programs, including Communities in Schools and City Connects, and noted the significance of high-quality implementation and insufficient measures for non-academic goals like improved grit and social skills. Additionally, because integrated student-support programs comprise five distinct elements-needs assessment, community partnerships, coordinated student support, integration within school, and data tracking-determining the character of high-quality implementation is complex. Such study, they noted, is \”the critical frontier for research and exercise.\”

Communities in Schools has invested in multiple third-party evaluations of its programs. The most recent, authored by MDRC in 2021, evaluated both of its models: Tier 1 \”whole school\” intervention and Tier 2 \”case management\” services for particular high-risk students. The quasi-experimental study of the whole-school model compared 53 schools in Texas and New york with similar schools not implementing the model and found some modest effects: elementary-school attendance rates improved a lot more than in comparable schools, for example. However, although high-school graduation rates increased, they did not improve a lot more than at the comparison schools. They found no impact on middle-school attendance, and were not able calculate the program's effect on behavior due to data limitations.

The other evaluation was a random-assignment study of the Tier 2 case-management intervention in 24 mostly urban, low-income secondary schools in two unnamed states. It found that students who had a Communities in Schools case manager used support services many showed improved attitudes about school and relationships with adults and peers. Researchers did not, however, find proof of improved student achievement, attendance, or behavior.

This lines up with most of the research on integrated student-support programs. \”There are lots of null findings,\” says Kristin Anderson Moore, a senior scholar and past president at Child Trends who co-authored the \”Making the Grade\” reports. Answers are \”neutral to positive when the methods are strong\” and there are \”almost no negative effects,\” but many advocates are still disappointed with findings which are not even close to a slam dunk. That vexes practitioners, advocates, and researchers alike because, as Anderson Moore puts it, such programs are \”aligned with everything we know about child development.\”

In addition, researchers and practitioners make \”critical correlations\” between key elements of integrated student supports, for example student engagement and student learning, for instance, and between self-regulation and academic success, says Brooke Stafford-Brizard, a director at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. But when everything all comes together, the result underwhelms.

Some impacts simply must be true. If your student has poor eyesight and can't see her teacher or even the words around the page of her book, eyeglasses will improve her capability to learn. Others are quite plausible. For instance, it is likely that students who believe that they have trusted adults in their lives, individuals who will support them within their times during the need, will become familiar with better. And yet the findings of large-scale evaluations have not shown significant improvements to student achievement because of these programs. There is still a huge gap in understanding which interventions affect which outcomes and just how those outcomes are related to each other.

There reaches least one exception: City Connects, which began in Boston in 1999 and today serves students in additional than 100 schools in six states. In 2021, a Boston College study found that students enrolled at City Connects elementary schools had about half the odds of dropping out of senior high school as teenagers. Researchers tracked 894 students who entered kindergarten between 2000 and 2004 at City Connects schools, where local site coordinators monitor every student's progress and challenges, in conjunction with their teachers, every year. Based on those data, students are individually connected to community services and enrichment opportunities to boost their academics, mental and physical health, social development, and family well-being.

One likely supply of the model's impact on dropouts is its early start, based on Mary E. Walsh, research co-author and executive director of City Connects.

\”A comprehensive intervention in elementary school that addresses an array of out-of-school factors can disrupt those pathways, supporting strengths and building resilience,\” she wrote inside a summary published by the American Educational Research Association.

Still, the general research base is far from conclusive. There are many potential explanations for the persistent lack of demonstrable success.

First, neither the research community nor practitioners be aware of right \”mix\” of services to provide to students. As Anderson Moore puts it: \”Is what's really important stable housing or medical health insurance? Important click?\”

Some interventions are more expensive than others. Some are more intense. Even though many have been studied in isolation, how can they work together? Additionally, students have multiple needs that might prevent them from achieving success within the classroom. Is meeting are just some of those needs enough? Which needs are the most important? Fundamental essentials questions that remain unanswered. It could be that integrated student-support providers aren't prioritizing the right interventions, or that they are undercutting their success by promoting multiple interventions at the same time.

Second, there are local capacity issues. Large organizations like Communities in Schools possess the resources to collect and analyze data, and organizations with outside support, such as those subsidized through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are trying to build capacity around data analytics and coordination. But many communities lack these partners.

Coordinating a large number of service providers helping hundreds of students is challenging. Trying to coordinate these types of services while evaluating their performance and adjusting behavior according to that information is even harder. Can local site coordinators do that kind of analysis and evaluation? How can they already know the partners they choose are the best potential assets locally? Local coordinators may not have time or resources to do the kind of research needed to weigh one intervention against another. They have to do their best to locate partners and then suggest judgments, often based on limited information, about how exactly well those partners are performing.

This presents a vulnerability. If site coordinators are at a loss for the vast array of potential social-service organizations or lack useful data or even the capability to analyze which providers might be more effective than the others, they are able to struggle to identify good groups in the community with whom to partner.

Ohio's Strive Partnership is attempting to solve that problem. Explained executive director Byron White as \”a backbone organization,\” Strive provides data analytics, capacity building, and community strategy support for the web of organizations that provide services for school-age children in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky and also the schools and districts seeking to partner together. \”To a student,\” he argues, \”there is not a line of demarcation,\” between home, school, and community. Thus, to deal with student learning, organizations need to look at the whole picture.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has invested in support networks such as these around the country. The Together for college students challenge project awarded grants to organizations that are coordinating and building capacity in local neighborhoods around six domains; academic, cognitive, socio-emotional learning, identity, physical well-being, and mental health.

A third challenge may be the classic problem of implementation. Area of the Communities in Schools model is to try to promote \”research-based\” whole-school interventions. This would not be the very first time that interventions with a promising research base didn't pan out at scale. Such prepackaged efforts often look different when they are delivered by a diffuse set of local actors throughout a whole school compared to what they do within the settings in which the original research on them took place. Do school leaders believe in and cost these programs? How about teachers? Would be the adults within the school supporting these programs? Or, is the local site coordinator swimming from the tide and fighting organizational culture in order to deliver services?

Fourth, and perhaps most troubling, evaluations of those programs might not be measuring the right things. While it is possible to gauge reading and writing, good measurements of speaking and listening are lacking-and those are key to assessing students' socio-emotional learning. \”There is a considerable amount we have to learn in this space,\” says Stafford-Brizard. Without good measures from the constructs these interventions are attempting to change, it's difficult to know whether or not they have changed them.

What's more, a number of these interventions are long-term in scope. They try to make serious changes in students' attitudes and behaviors, which take time to take root and even longer to completely shape their actions both outside and inside the classroom. Short-term gains in test scores, in other words, may not be the best evaluation from the impact of these programs.

There might be larger, worthy queries about the best avenue for needed supports. How about we schools provide these services directly? Why don't government approaches use tax programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit to put financial resources directly into parents' hands? Regardless, integrated student supports are not going away. In communities where children struggle to get their basic needs met, organizations continues to try and offer their material well-being in addition to their mental and physical health. Schools are a natural location for coordination of these services, even if they rely on outside nonprofits to supply them. Given that, just how can such initiatives talk with more demonstrable success? Here are three potential positive steps.

First, if existing measures are not fully capturing the outcome of those programs, researchers, in partnership with practitioners, have to try to develop new and measures. Improved indicators of mental and physical health and of community connections could provide a better concept of what programs are actually doing within the lives of children. This isn't to state that these measures have to be incorporated into accountability systems or accustomed to reward or sanction schools or teachers; rather, they simply have to help on-the-ground practitioners better know very well what programs do and just how they are doing it.

Second, researchers should also try to better understand both the relative and combined effect of interventions. Do you know the major impediments to student success and just how can they be removed? Which barriers are less important and could be dealt with later? Similarly, how do interventions work in tandem? Will there be mixtures of interventions that behave as force multipliers? Perform some interventions in tandem actually reduce the effectiveness of others by spreading teachers or coordinators too thin? Is it a small amount of higher-intensity interventions or perhaps a larger number of lower-touch programs? Which student supports get the most bang for that buck? These are serious questions which will take researchers serious amounts of parse.

Third, advocates and philanthropies that support these types of interventions have to still purchase building capacity for local decisionmakers. Can they, as with Cincinnati, provide data analytics making it easier for overstretched school administrators and site coordinators to weigh the various possibilities and select the main one using the highest probability of success? This is not to state that supporters should push top-down commands of the items to trace and what interventions to make use of, but that they should invest in the skill development and infrastructure that local actors can utilize.

Anyone so what about boosting student success within the classroom shouldn't necessarily discount serious improvements to students' standard of living outside the classroom. Getting mental healthcare that helps students cope with anger issues or process trauma can alter their lives. It might not make sure they are better students, but it can certainly make them better people.

Many in our nation's poorest students have needs that, for whatever reason, are not being met by their own families or their schools. Luckily, there exists a robust network of civil-society institutions and businesses that work to try to meet these needs. Rather than reinventing the wheel and providing these services in-house, schools and school districts can partner with these organizations for that betterment of the students. Comparing the various options continues to be a piece in progress, but one with the possibility to seriously improve disadvantaged students' lives.

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