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Approximately five million students who are served by public care agencies have multiple official adults in their lives — judges, lawyers, therapists, volunteers, teachers, counselors, case managers, social workers and more — people paid to support them when they experience significant life circumstances like homelessness, foster care or incarceration.
That five million does not include those students who experience instability resulting from uncounted experiences like evictions, parental arrests, prolonged family medical crises, migrant work and other major life disruptions. These are generally not students who are “falling through the cracks” and being served by no one. Quite the opposite — they are instead being served by everyone.
School districts and states spend a lot of money on services for student care but, in reality, most students get too little from too many people via layered-on crisis intervention services and patchworked programs.
Ultimately, no one is planning toward any student’s long-term goals — unless a student does it himself or herself. In most places, there is simply no single adult who can connect all of the dots for individual students over time. Without that coherent and consistent support, young people are far more likely to end up dropping out of school, unemployed or employed in low-wage and insecure jobs, involved with the criminal justice system, or living with family violence.
Related: A child is not a revolving door
The fragmentation that exists among schools and social service agencies is not a new problem, and every system has created workarounds to mitigate some of the most persistent challenges. In El Dorado County, California, Sheila Silan serves as a “chief of staff,” helping to coordinate services, gather information and update records for individual students. Officially, Silan oversees both El Dorado County’s foster youth education support systems and the student attendance review board. But she has also worked at the county office of education for 30 years and, as a licensed foster parent, has cared for dozens of youth in her own home who pass through El Dorado’s schools.
As a result, Silan carries and shares knowledge and long histories of families, schools and individual kids — things that are not in case files or incident reports. County leaders joke that the official system in place for quickly gathering information about a student is to call Silan.
Even though El Dorado County is tight-knit community, these informal systems of information-sharing are not working as well as they need to be. David Ashby, the leader of one of the primary mental health providers in the county, explains: “Trying to run down the information is challenging. More often than not, we uncover something down the road that would have been helpful to have known up front. It’s not that someone doesn’t want to share, it’s just that each person has pieces of the information. There’s no system to hold it all.”
Though the situation is not perfect, students are lucky to have Sheila Silan in their corner. But the reality is that “Sheilas” are few and far between, and even where they can be found, like here in El Dorado, they are — as all humans are — impermanent. Despite the jokes, having a Sheila, or 100 Sheilas, is not a system.
It is not even a sustainable job. One day, this Shelia will retire and all of the institutional knowledge that she carries with her will be gone. For El Dorado’s students to continue to receive the kind of individualized support she provides, her role must be embedded within a system that is intentionally designed to mitigate the fragmentation that occurs across disconnected services. Otherwise, it’s just more adults for students to get to know — and then to lose.
As the only system that serves most of this country’s young people every day, schools have a critical role to play. As we lay out in our 2018 report, “Continuity Counts: Coordinated Education Systems for Students in Transition,” students are doing their best to plan toward long-term goals for themselves despite the turbulence, and often school is the one consistent thing in their lives. Making a chief of staff someone who is connected to a student’s education pathway over the long-term (like a county or state education agency) ensures that students receive consistent support over time, regardless of life changes.
In El Dorado County, system leaders are moving ahead with efforts to improve coordination for all of their young people who experience education disruption. Leaders from across the county are coming together to plan collectively for a new vision — one in which there is “no wrong door” for a young person or family to enter in order to get connected with every service they need, in the words of Dr. Patricia Charles-Heathers, El Dorado’s director of health and human services.
This shift in focus is crucial. As Hanna Skandera, former New Mexico State Superintendent of Education, explains: “These endeavors [to create greater coordination] are incredibly important, but they will not succeed if each state and community does not have an empowered individual who is leading the work to align systems. Every agency and entity involved has to be regularly held accountable and relationships have to develop within and amongst the entities.”
Ultimately, the goal is to shift burdens to the systems themselves, and the best way to ensure that all students who experience a disrupted education receive streamlined care and support is to create structures that ensure this work is everyone’s responsibility.
Hailly Korman is a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, where she works with state and local governments to improve multiagency coordination, and co-author of the report “Continuity Counts: Coordinated Education Systems for Students in Transition.”
Kelly Robson is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners and co-author of the report “Continuity Counts: Coordinated Education Systems for Students in Transition.”