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Full-Service Schools: Where Success Is More Than Academic

Communities and schools unite to meet the needs of the whole child.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Credit: Wesley Bedrosian

For every educator who has tried to play therapist, nurse, job counselor, nutritionist, and family advocate to her students while still fulfilling the duties of her own job -- imagine a school where there's actually a professional to fill each of those roles.

That's the goal of a growing number of communities that are creating full-service community schools, in which service agencies and schools team up to meet a whole range of children's social, emotional, and academic needs, using the school building as a hub. With the economy stuttering and the pressure on schools to hit testing targets getting more intense, the number of school-as-service-hub sites will grow in the coming year and beyond. Even where communities don't attempt to create complete one-stop shops, schools and service groups will increasingly join forces in smaller ways to better support kids.

"The school is the receiver of everything that's happening in the economy or society," says Molly McCloskey, director of constituent services at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), outside Washington, DC. "The housing crisis right now -- holy cow, is that playing out in schools! Different kinds of families are qualifying for free or reduced lunch, and, even worse, some families are so embarrassed about applying that their kids don't have food."

The community-schools movement is more than twenty years old, McCloskey says, but it's seeing a surge in interest. It is dawning on social workers and educators that these partnerships enable agencies to reach children where they are, and the assistance frees up teachers to teach and -- ideally -- students to learn.

It may seem like a long leap from multiple-choice math tests to in-school social work, but as with so many things in education, the federal No Child Left Behind Act plays a role. Love it or hate it, the law has placed a national spotlight on the disparities in academic achievement between affluent and poor neighborhoods -- and no amount of test prep can erase the effects of poverty, ill health, and family distress on children.

At Thomas Edison Elementary School, in Port Chester, New York, a pocket of poverty in wealthy Westchester County, school leaders began a decade ago forging partnerships to support students and families. As reported in the April 2008 issue of Educational Leadership, the school now hosts a health center where staff from a local medical agency provide primary care, dentistry, and nutrition counseling -- essential services at a school where previously only 23 percent of students had health insurance.

Through other partnerships, students and families benefit from the services of a mental health counselor and a bilingual family caseworker, plus after-school enrichment. Edison's standardized test scores have rocketed upward, and immigrant parents once uninvolved with the school are now active in the PTA.

Other communities tackle problems more piecemeal, welcoming what services they can get. Nationwide, 1,700 sites have school-based health centers offering care tailored to community needs, according to the National Assembly on School-Based Health Care.

In rural Grants Pass, Oregon, the Southern Oregon Adolescent Study and Treatment Center began three years ago stationing staff in schools to counsel students in the course of regular school activities -- avoiding the stigma of being pulled out of class for a formal counseling appointment. The local Lovejoy Hospice also has begun providing counseling in twelve schools to children with a deceased, dying, or absent parent. Nancy Livingood, Lovejoy's manager of social services, explains that the partnership "evolved out of need -- one call after another."

Public support for these hybrid operations is growing. The U.S. Department of Education, planning to give out $5 million this fall to support full-service community schools, received 480 applications for just 8 to 12 grants. Congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland is trying to add another $200 million in annual funding to the new NCLB law.

"This is about meeting the needs of kids to ensure all of our futures," says the ASCD's Molly McCloskey. "It's about making sure that kids, as they become adults, are more than just little brains on a stick."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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Jean Lim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A child's home environment is so closely tied to success in school, and the better we can help them meet their home needs, the easier it is for them to learn.

It is ironic that even though students represent our future, funding for schools, and for programs that support the student's socio-emotional development are a low priority for our governments.

Jean Lim
Cupertino, CA

Renee Moore/TeachMoore's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of full-service schools looks very promising, at least on the surface. I can see where this would help the rural communities around me provide much needed services to larger numbers of students. We are in an area where teachers, nurses, doctors, mental health workers, and other human, as well as material, resources are in short supply. The idea makes great sense, which makes me wonder how much of chance it really has for government support.

tracey stute's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our community received a sizable grant from Safe Schools Healthy Students to link support services to the fiscally/academically struggling city schools. The services my agency provides include: school based mental health counselors and case management. Although many positive outcomes can be documented and intellectually people know there are many barriers to learning it creating systems to address these needs still seems to be low on the list of priorities. The end of our funding stream is near and the community partners have not identified means to sustain. Stakeholders have limited knowledge about the work being done and it seems there is some reluctance re: talking about the social and emotional concerns of children at school to the community.
This initiative called the schools and partners to address violence, drug/alcohol use, mental health needs for children through a continuum of interventions from prevention to treatment. This was a great opportunity for the systems to develop new ways of working together collaboratively to create safer and more supportive cultures for learning.
The lack of ongoing financial support will surely undo the efforts of many, have impact on the declining discipline referrals and other positive outcomes noted. Funding student support needs to be a priority.

Laurie Wasserman, LD/NBCT's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my kind of school! I think about all the kids we work with and all their needs: educational, emotional and social. The idea of looking at the whole child and creating a school like this is designed to meet all their needs warms my heart, touches my soul, and just makes for a happier kid :) I think of all the kids I teach and how much sadness and pain they have experienced in their short lives from the impact of hospitalized parents, to abuse, death and poverty.I think of the kids I've taught with severe medical conditions and constant hunger, and how if we could just find a way to help them, really all connect with them on all their necessary level, what a difference!The impact on their lives would be tremendous, life changing, dramatic. We need to work together to help kids. When we have schools such as these, we are putting our priorities on our children, making them the most important part of our schools.
I loved Molly's quote, "this is about meeting the needs of kids to ensure all of our futures." As we say here in Boston, "This is a wicked cool concept!"

Nancy Green's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel lucky to be working in such a school; it is smaller, and the whole school is filled with loving, caring adults. The children are well looked after and seem happy here. There is a strong counseling component that supports not only the students but the teachers as well - helping teachers understand their kids.

The love, the caring in this place is amazing and I just wish all schools were like mine.

Nancy Green
Resource Specialist

Linda Goodwin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you 100%. Academic Success depends largely on what is going on in the student's home. I see or hear about it everyday at school.

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