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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.