When you think about the obstacles that many students face, you might not put the weather at the top of the list. But during a typical Twin Cities cold snap in January, a family in St. Paul, Minnesota, had to deal with their children coming home to bone-chilling cold when the furnace broke down.
It’s hard for children to focus on homework and studying when they’re freezing. In this case, help was available. Mary Vang, a nonprofit employee embedded at St. Paul’s Humboldt High School to support students’ outside-the-classroom needs, bought the family a heater to warm their home until the furnace could be fixed. Vang and others like her across the country play vital roles in bringing a wide range of community services inside the schoolhouse, thus ensuring that teachers can do what they do best: teach.
This “community schools” approach has grown in popularity across the nation over the past few decades. Yet as many more school districts and even entire states, like Minnesota, take up the mantle of this type of holistic educational philosophy, we must recognize that not all community schools are equally rooted in evidence of what works. To benefit the students who most need support to succeed in school and in life, we have to make sure we’re using rigorous, effective models that truly have positive effects on educational measures such as attendance, graduation and drop-out rates, and academic achievement.
The premise of community schools is this: When students run into the barriers thrown up by poverty, teachers’ roles become even more challenging. Teachers cannot ensure that students have meals over the weekend so they aren’t hungry in class, have a stable place to live that’s heated in winter, can walk to school safely and can get to the doctor so physical ailments don’t lead to chronic absences.
What teachers and schools need is for the whole community to see education as its job. Then, schools can become hubs where trained professional staff, like Mary, connect children and their families to everything the community offers: food, emergency housing, clothing, health care and social services, as well as academic supports like tutoring, mentoring and goal-setting.
Decades of work by nonprofits across the country have resulted in a proven model called Integrated Student Supports, or ISS. It provides a blueprint for how best to bring these necessary community supports inside schools so that students and their families can easily access them. When communities have carefully put ISS in place, they have been able to boost attendance and graduation rates and improve students’ behavior and academic achievement. In high schools, ISS has been shown to create $11.60 in economic benefits for every $1 invested.
As a community schools proponent in Minnesota, I laud Governor Tim Walz for including $8 million over four years for “full-service community schools” in his 2019 education budget. The Minnesota House has also voted to expand community schools. Our state needs to move in this direction because it’s clear that our students need more support than what’s available in our schools today. More than a third of students in the state receive free or reduced-price meals. Over 8,000 students are homeless. And while graduation rates for students of color have risen for five years, there is still a 20-percentage-point gap in the graduation rates of white and non-white students. Schools and districts may have different levels of need, but there are students at risk in every Minnesota school district. New state funding will help us start closing these gaps.
But we have to do this work in ways that are tailor-made for each school, rather than trying to force schools into using a one-size-fits-all model that may not meet their students’ needs.
ISS’s success, for example, stems in part from the fact that nonprofit staff first assess what’s already happening at a school. They work with the principal, teachers, families and students to determine which services are available and which are missing. They make a plan to fill the holes. Then they coordinate and deliver services so schools can focus on teaching and learning, and families don’t have to spend valuable time hunting for the help they need.
No matter what state or school district children live in, no child should get less of an education because he or she is cold or hungry or homeless. We all benefit when students can succeed in school and in life. So it stands to reason that we should turn to models that have already worked in dozens of school districts. Our nation’s children deserve real solutions that have been shown to make a difference.
Amanda Sappa is executive director of Communities In Schools of the Twin Cities.