It Is Time to Rethink Student Supports in Schools

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School isn’t just about academics.

That’s perhaps the clearest lesson that emerged from the pandemic when it comes to education.

To be a place where students learn, schools also must support the social and emotional health of the kids sitting in desks. And that has become harder under the stress of a global pandemic, which has caused a massive upheaval of daily life for students and their families. The Centers for Disease Control found that 37 percent of high school students in 2021 reported that they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. And only half of students in remote or in-person learning said they felt connected to peers or adults at school.

Teachers, counselors, principals, and other school staff members have always been tasked with a heroic amount of work, and the pandemic placed even more demands on them.

When schools reopened for in-person learning, there was a hope that this would be an opportunity for schools to not just return to normal but come back better. However, this year was still a struggle for many students and staff. Students were out of the habit of being physically in schools. The pandemic put even greater pressure on teachers and schools to meet more needs while short staffed. That’s led to more teachers contemplating leaving the profession due to burnout in a field that was already facing an evaporating pipeline. The pandemic also brought into sharper focus other problems that predated COVID-19.

The same CDC report also found a potential solution. Students who were connected to an adult or peers in their school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35 percent vs. 53 percent); that they seriously considered attempting suicide (14 percent vs. 26 percent); or attempted suicide (6 percent vs. 12 percent).

As we seek to emerge from the pandemic and reimagine schools so that students do not just recover from the pandemic but are set up to thrive, what if we normalized schools as hubs with student supports?

Last week, the Biden-Harris Administration launched the National Partnership for Student Success (NPSS) as a step in this direction. This three-year initiative brings together a coalition of more than 70 education, service and youth-development organizations to recruit, train and support an additional 250,000 adults to provide targeted student supports in schools. It is a partnership spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Education, Americorps, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. The NPSS aims to be a national body that supports local efforts.

“We’re not saying that [the NPSS has] the answers,” said Cindy Marten, Deputy Secretary of Education. “We’re saying we believe you have the answers in your community, and we are here to provide the research around best practices and support.”

Here are some ways that schools and partners can provide much needed supports to students:

Define the Roles Schools Need Beyond Teachers and Administrators

Teachers are asked to be the jack-of-all-trades. But, teachers alone cannot address all of the needs students have. Student support needs to be a team effort not just dependent on a single teacher.

The NPSS identifies five student support categories:

  • Post-secondary transition coaches
  • Academic tutors
  • High-quality mentors
  • Student success coaches
  • Wraparound/integrated student support coordinators

Naming the responsibilities of the roles make them more tangible and provide schools with a clear idea of how to carry them out, as well as a clearer definition of how they can provide support. The NPSS’s website also highlights bright spots of schools that have implemented these structures at a high level so that these pockets of innovations can spread and become the system norm. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins, also noted that “fundamental to all of these supports is the support you’re giving but also the relationships formed and the integration in schools.”

Integrate Supports with Schools

Student supports have to be well-coordinated for them to be effective. Balfanz gave the example of after-school tutoring offered from an outside provider. The tutors may be providing strong instruction, but if they are disconnected from the instruction in schools, it may not set up students to do well in class in the immediate future.

“Anything that can ultimately support kids and their learning as long as it’s aligned to schools will be helpful,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten, which is part of the NPSS coalition. “The alignment is really important…The alignment and coordination has to be there or else it will be viewed as an additional responsibility.”

If, for instance, schools try to provide a student a mentor that meets with them three times a week, she says, “there’s going to have to be close communication between the mentor and the teacher. That should be built into the planning time that a teacher should have.”

Provide Frequent, Sustained Supports

The supports that students receive cannot be one-off and sporadic. “We know that tutoring and mentoring can be highly effective and highly impactful and will really speak to the needs of our students at the moment, Balfanz said at the NPSS launch. “But for that to be true, we have to pay attention to dosage, to frequency, to duration and there’s an intensity behind this that has to be achieved for it to really move the needle.”

The students, he added, need to know that someone at the school has their back, and will be with them over the long term, not just to tackle an immediate challenge.

Fund Supports Beyond the Pandemic

President Biden is calling on schools to use funding they received from the American Rescue Plan to provide these much needed supports. But, these student needs are not going to disappear after the three-year period of the NPSS.

While some of the supports like mentors can be filled by trained volunteers, roles like integrated student support coordinators and student success coaches should be paid professionals. Taking away these supports after organizations have become embedded within the school community and have formed strong bonds with students will be untenable.

Make the funding permanent to reflect the recognition that schools must continue to provide these supports for students to become strong employees and citizens.

Lower the Lift for Schools

School staffs are stretched now and often do not have the capacity to establish relationships with external providers. NPSS will serve as a one-stop shop where schools can find vetted organizations.

“The last thing we need to do is bring an extra mandate to a principal or a school.” said Rey Saldaña, president and CEO of the nonprofit Communities in Schools.

The NPSS has identified a lead partner organization for each support category who will develop standards of quality for their category. For instance, Communities in Schools is the lead partner for “Wraparound/integrated Student Support Coordinators.” Organizations can voluntarily follow these standards and be listed on the website. Each lead organization will also help provide technical assistance to participants to better provide support.

NPSS is also thinking about partnerships to support the recruitment of adults.

“All of this requires more people power to do,” Balfanz said. “We’ve identified needs and evidence-based supports. Critical to meeting them is getting more people into schools.”

Partnerships they are exploring include working with colleges to have work-study students serve as supports and with large businesses who can have employees participate as part of corporate social responsibility efforts.

“We believe that as we recover from the pandemic that this takes a whole community approach to supporting our young people,” Marten said. “I think every adult in our country can be a bright spot for a young person in their community.”

The NPSS is a welcome move to recognize and encourage the role of support services in schools. The hope is that these will one day be integrated into the fabric of schools long after the pandemic.

“[The NPSS] is not just about getting through the pandemic,” Marten said. “It’s putting together a community that cares where multiple partners are committed to students succeeding.”

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