How to Provide the Full-Service Community-Supported Public Schools We Need

All students have potential, but access to support and opportunity is not equally distributed. As a high school principal for 10 years, I encountered well-intentioned teachers and students racing toward adulthood with an endless variety of needs: students struggling with poverty; transience; family changes; immigration; addiction; the negative effects of trauma; and emotional, physical, and social health.

In most cases, these challenges directly affect a student’s ability to thrive in the classroom, and schools struggle because there is no prescribed or easy solution. The response to the academic struggles of our students has traditionally included longer days and school years, improved instructional strategies, targeted remediation, and focused test preparation. But schools have rarely attempted to combat the non-academic root causes which are negatively affecting the achievement of our students.

Simply put, not enough is being done to address the lack of equity experienced by students and their families. So we must ask ourselves a few questions: How can I ensure my students have the access and opportunity to fully realize their potential? How do we help each student understand his or her personal aptitudes and assets? How do we instill within a student a sense of optimism and a sense of purpose?

A Comprehensive School Offering Wraparound Support

To really help students succeed, schools need to implement a holistic approach by supplementing our extensive instructional efforts and becoming “full service” schools. With embedded essential community services such as basic needs provision, mental and physical health services, hard and soft skill development, and workforce exploration, students have their best chance at a successful start following graduation.

A comprehensive wraparound school is a place of hope, connection, and opportunity — a school that’s actively striving to make equity and future success attainable for its students. This means monitoring student setbacks and successes, providing academic and behavioral interventions in a timely manner, connecting students and families with support services, and offering high-quality aptitude-based career and college transition counseling.

“Whole child” schooling, paired with collaborative community partnerships, is a cornerstone in the common-sense revisioning of public education and a powerful solution we need now. Here are some tips to improve a school’s ability to provide comprehensive, wraparound community services and partnerships to ensure all students have the support they need and an equitable opportunity for success:

1. Evaluate Students’ Needs

A comprehensive full-service school is designed to meet the needs of its students by working with local individuals, agencies, and businesses to strengthen the community. First, schools must identify needs and establish priorities. Schools uncover specific barriers and concerns students are facing by speaking in depth with students, parents, and community members. High-quality needs assessments provide data that schools and communities use to prioritize the most pressing needs and opportunities for support and partnership.

2. Give Students Hope, Purpose, and Relevance

For struggling students, some of the most powerful interventions regarding post-high school planning lie in the realm of social and emotional learning — the development of a student’s self-discovery and aspiration leading to optimism, self-worth, and purpose. Aptitude-based assessments are capable of helping educators and parents learn much more about our teens than what is typically gleaned through traditional academic testing.

While I was a principal at Marietta High School, we partnered as a pilot school with YouScience, an aptitude assessment tool. YouScience uncovers students’ natural talents and matches them to careers in which their abilities add value to the workforce. Too often, we point students in directions or make course recommendations for them based on what we have available for scheduling, what we can gather from their academic test results, and our own personal hunches about what they might be good at or interested in. Typically, educators have little information which is relevant to whether the direction recommended is the best fit for the individual student. YouScience equips schools to engage in individualized goal-setting with students and parents through a process that is informative and inspires hope.

3. Compile Resources

With students’ needs in mind, schools must search the community to identify local resources, partners, service providers, and funding sources. Consider looking beyond the local community for resources if need be, and then connect students and families with the available services. Some schools might want to start small, with partnerships providing care closets, apprenticeships, job placement assistance, mediation services, or wellness coaching, and then gradually grow the number of services offered over time. Other schools might have the resources to introduce multiple community partners to work with students and their families on a regular basis. The important thing is that students are connected with community resources providing the support they need.

4. Commit to the Long Term

It’s important to remember that developing a school which provides comprehensive support is a process that takes intentionality, time, and patience. School districts must commit to discovery, innovation, and collaboration, and they must focus on a long-term goal of community improvement. It’s deep work that’s dependent upon trust and building relationships with students and community members. Start small and commit to the long haul.

Schools are microcosms of their communities. The time and energy invested in this process will benefit not only students and their families but also the community as a whole. Creating a “one-stop shop” of support and coordination of essential community services is the best way to address the most significant barriers our students face today, as well as set them up for success for years to come.

Zero Tolerance Policies Hurt Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Pennsylvania’s Public Schools

There has been many heated discussions throughout the country regarding the disparities of zero tolerance policies implemented in our nation’s public schools.  Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania released a report that outlined startling statistics regarding the number of African-American, and Latino students, and students with disabilities who were disproportionately affected by zero tolerance policies within Pennsylvania’s public schools.

The report, titled “Beyond Zero Tolerance:  Discipline and Policing Pennsylvania’s Public Schools” disclosed the high numbers of minorities and students with disabilities being suspended at greater rates than their white and able-bodied peers.  During the 2011-2012 academic year, there were over 166,000 out-of-school suspensions issued by school districts.  To give you a better understanding of this figure, 10 out of 100 students in Pennsylvania’s public schools were suspended during this particular academic term.

Zero Tolerance 1The disparities in race and disability are taken into account when one reviews the number of minority and students with disabilities that attend Pennsylvania’s public schools, and how these students comprised the high percentages of students who received disciplinary action that resulted in suspension, expulsions, and arrests.  African American students made up only 13.6% of the population that attended Pennsylvania schools, but they accounted for close to half of the out-of-school suspensions reported by school districts.  One out of every 10 Latino students were suspended at least once during the 2011-2012 school year; this is the highest figure reported concerning Latino students and suspension in the country, according to the ACLU.  Students with disabilities did not fair much better; students with disabilities were suspended at a 11.1% rate.  In comparison to their peers, students with disabilities faced the fate of being twice as likely to experience suspension.

In the ACLU’s report, the organization noted the probable cause for these disparities revolved around the fact that zero tolerance policies cast out a very wide net that catches “undesirable,” or disruptive behaviors and actions.  These behaviors and actions were deemed unacceptable by school districts, and are judged as grounds for punishment.

The ACLU proposed several suggestions for school districts to consider when it comes to the disparities surrounding zero tolerance policies.  Full-scale review of current suspension policies, utilize intensive disciplinary actions only when there is a imminent danger to safety of the offending student and/or others, and fully evaluating the true effectiveness of law enforcement officials within the schools were a few of the recommendations issued by the ACLU.

Reading the striking findings of this report hopefully enlightens us about the covert inequities of blanket polices like zero tolerance in our public schools.  Such blanket policies are detrimental to the students who are more likely to be disproportionately represented and unfairly labeled as “troublemakers.”  These policies also prove to be inflexible in appropriately discerning between behaviors that are indeed disruptive to the school environment and/or place students and staff in danger versus behaviors conducted that may be due to cultural differences, problems experienced by students within the home environment, cognitive limitations, etc.  Without taking these possible reasons for the occurrence of these behaviors into consideration, we end up mislabeling these students as recalcitrant and fail to look deeper into the actual cause(s) of their misconduct.

To the educators, parents, and students out there, what issues have your school districts encountered with zero tolerance policies?  Have your school district reported similar trends in high percentages of suspensions, expulsions, and arrest among minority students and students with disabilities?  If so, what steps have been taken to ameliorate these disparities?  Do you believe zero tolerance policies work effectively at extinguishing all forms of misconduct in schools, no matter how minor or severe the behavior?  Tell me your thoughts and experiences by sending an email to Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com, or by visiting my website, Ramp Your Voice!

(Featured headline image:  Courtesy of WTAE.) 

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