The power and untapped potential of providing integrated student support

“To the children whom our school system and our society have failed for far too long.”

That’s the sobering dedication that co-authors Elaine Weiss and Paul Reville chose for their new book, “Broader, Bolder, Better: How Schools and Communities Help Students Overcome the Disadvantages of Poverty.”

In this book, Weiss and Reville call on schools and communities to stop failing by creating “systems of integrated student supports (ISS) for all children.”

The two authors say it is crucial to create ISS systems that support the whole child — like City Connects and others in the field — because of the nation’s history of mediocre policy achievements.

“Decades of education reform efforts have yielded modest if any improvements in most places where poverty is present,” they write. “To be sure, there are outliers, schools and individuals defying the odds, but on average, we still have an iron-clad correlation between socioeconomic status and education achievement and attainment.”

It’s a tough assessment from two insiders. Weiss is a former national coordinator for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education initiative, a national campaign for using evidence-based solutions to tackle student poverty; while Reville, currently a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, was Massachusetts’ Secretary of Education under Governor Deval Patrick.

What’s needed now, Weiss and Reville say, is a broad, new vision.

“For the millions of children whose basic needs are not consistently met, we join the growing chorus call for a broad, integrated set of student supports that bring together schools, communities, and social programs. Such a comprehensive approach could enhance school-parent-community working relationships, expand student learning opportunities with respect to both time and quality, and ensure attention to urgent social, emotional, and physical health needs that often prevent children from learning.”

Weiss and Reville point to the importance of City Connects’ whole class review of every student’s strengths and needs, which accomplishes two things.

“First, it intentionally shies away from the deficit model that initiatives responding to poverty often inevitable adopt – a focus on unmet needs. City Connects emphasizes instead the assets that every child brings to the table and works to strengthen them. It reviews these assets as well as the child’s specific needs to customize a set of enrichments, resources, and other supports that are unique to each child and draw on the rich variety of resources available. For example, in Boston, the resources include museum-associated arts classes and dance instruction and world-class health care.”

At City Connects, thanks to data and research, we know this approach works. City Connects has immediate impacts on achievement and thriving as well as long-term impacts not only on achievement but on the rate of high school dropout.

Weiss and Reville also point to Salem, Mass., where City Connects is in every pre-K-to-8 school, delivering services and helping the city expand its efforts to gather and use student data. Salem has worked with Reville and the By All Means initiative, an education reform project based at the Education Redesign Lab, which is part of Harvard’s graduate school of education. 

To help schools become, as their book’s title says, broader, bolder, and better, Weiss and Reville call for sweeping national action and more efforts to grow ISS programs to scale.

Because federal education law delegates “much of the authority and responsibility to improve schools back to the states,” local leaders have the opportunity to make great strides in building ISS programs.

To address ISS costs, the philanthropic community can make crucial investments – especially because society places high expectations on schools, and “U.S. schools have never been funded or structured to achieve at such a high level, let alone provide all the extra support that educators have increasingly been expected to undertake in recent decades.”

To create public demand for ISS programs, educators have to share the impact these programs have with parents and the wider public. To this end, City Connects and its home, the Center for Optimized Student Support, based at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, both get credit from Weiss and Reville for creating “state-level systems to advance ISS and to share best practices and lessons learned.” To inform local and state leaders, we’ve outlined best practices for building systems of integrated student support in our new policy brief.

As their book draws to an end, Weiss and Reville make an urgent, rallying cry.

“Building a movement is a long and complex process,” they write, “and building systems of ISS that advance whole-child education will likewise be complicated and difficult. But those realities should not dissuade us from undertaking that work. There has never been a more urgent need for it or, perhaps, a more propitious moment to take it on. We should seize our many current opportunities to build on existing progress, to strengthen our collective muscle, and to move quickly and cohesively toward created a united research and advocacy field.”

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