Student Well-Being

In Some Cities, Closing Achievement Gaps Is Not for Schools to Fix Alone

By Denisa R. Superville — September 11, 2018 15 min read
Julie Latessa sings to students in a summer learning program in Providence, R.I., earlier this summer. The program is part of coordinated efforts between the city and school district to boost students’ academic performance and overall well-being.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Salem, Mass.

If a mother needs after-school child care to work extra hours but can’t afford to pay for it, who is responsible for helping her figure it out? What about helping families find housing after a fire? A summer job for a high school student?

Should city officials step in? Or the school district?

In Salem, Mass., the historic city of about 43,000 on the state’s north shore, city and school leaders say it should be both.

“The wheelhouse is the schools,” said Kim Driscoll, Salem’s mayor. “But this is really about how do we support youth, how do we have thriving young people in our community and make sure they are achieving at their highest potential?”

Salem—and a handful of other small- to mid-size cities—is blurring the lines between the role the school district and the city play in children’s lives. It’s main vehicle for that work is City Connects, a student-support system that city and school officials rolled out in pre-K-8 schools last year.

Coordinators sit down with each child’s teacher and review his or her strengths and weaknesses at the beginning of the school year, then develop an “individualized student success plan” based on the student’s needs.

The customized plans can include housing assistance, tutoring, or after-school activities like karate.

The idea is that focusing on student’s individual needs in four areas—academics, health, family, and social-emotional well-being—and matching them with the right kinds of assistance and enrichment programs, will lead to more successful citizens in the long run.

Weaving a seamless and tailored web of services for children and families inside and outside of school has been the central tenet of an experiment underway in Salem and five other communities over the past two years.

The cities—Somerville and Newton, Mass.; Louisville, Ky.; Providence, R.I.; and Oakland, Calif.—set off in 2016 on an experimental endeavor with the Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to rethink how they support children and families, in some cases from birth through college. (Newton dropped out of the program before the pilot ended earlier this year.)

The program, now in its second phase, encourages city and district teams to craft customized education plans for students, focus on students’ health and social-emotional well-being, and create a governance structure—a “children’s cabinet"—comprised of officials from K-12, government, philanthropy, higher education, business, and nonprofits to work on a kind of social compact for children.

Each community chose different priorities for the first phase.

Providence, for example, emphasized summer learning and summer youth employment among its many initiatives, while Louisville pulled together already existing programs, including a goal of adding 55,000 graduates with bachelors and associates degrees by 2020, into one cohesive “cradle to career” initiative.

In the second phase, the Redesign Lab expects the cities to double down on the individual education plans for students, similar to what Salem is rolling out through City Connects.

A Citywide Approach

Paul Reville, the director of Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab and a former Massachusetts education secretary who is spearheading the program, said that for too long education reform has focused nearly exclusively on what happens inside the school building, without an equal amount of attention on the children.

“You look at the three ingredients in education—it’s the child, it’s curriculum, and it’s instruction,” Reville said. “It’s the transaction between the child, the teacher, and the curriculum that’s really the core business of education.”

But, Reville continued, “We treat the child as a given in the equation. They are just there, and we have to educate them. Instead of saying, ‘How do they show up? What’s going on in the lives of children that influences them and, in some cases, impedes them from taking advantage of the optimized curriculum and instruction?’ ”

As important as improving schooling for all students is, Reville argues that civic and education leaders need to also prioritize equal access for poor and rural students outside of school—opportunities such as after-school sports and activities, summer camps, and summer jobs for high school students, he said.

“We are not saying that school isn’t important,” said Reville. “It’s important.”

The concept of weaving together city and school services is not exactly novel.

New York City’s Harlem Children’s Zone and Say Yes to Education are just two examples of initiatives that take a holistic approach to student success. NBA superstar LeBron James generated a lot of buzz last month when he opened his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, that will provide a robust array of services including a food pantry for families and General Educational Development test and employment assistance for parents.

And a handful of states, including Virginia, Rhode Island, and Louisiana have children’s cabinets, which are tasked with collaborating on a range of issues that affect children and families.

What’s different here is the citywide approach to children’s well-being that extends beyond school walls, with the mayors using their bully pulpit and resources of the cities to play a leading role. A key part of the mission is challenging longstanding inequities and leveling the playing field, reducing achievement gaps, and improving outcomes for low-income children.

Silvyraida Mustafa, 9, blindfolded, is guided by Nicole Jimenez, 9, as they work together in a summer learning program in Providence, R.I.

Julia Freeland Fisher, the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, which studies disruptive innovation, agrees with the premise that education reform predicated solely on reworking the academic model was incomplete. There’s “plentiful” evidence that nonacademic variables also shape students’ learning outcomes, she said.

But for those integrated student-support systems to work, particularly in closing achievement gaps, teachers must be an integral part of the program, Fisher said.

In the successful models that she has studied, Fisher said, teachers, by virtue of “knowing more about what’s happening in their students’ lives and having these additional resources to address potential barriers to learning, their academic decisions can actually be sensitive to the nonacademic factors present in student’s lives.”

Without deep teacher involvement, such programs run the risk of layering services upon services, with no connection to what teachers are doing in the classroom.

“I think the wisdom of these integrated student support models is that we are trying to break down silos between school, community, home, after-school, social services,” Fisher said. “If teachers are not part of that loop, I think you risk putting dollars and a lot of energy into all sorts of services that are great for students but that don’t translate into better test scores necessarily or higher graduation rates.”

Community Support

Reville and the mayors involved in the Harvard experiment known as By All Means say their citywide approach to supporting students and families is critical, particularly at a time when the federal education department has scaled back its local footprint and the absence of “education governors” in the mold of former South Carolina Gov. Richard Riley and former President Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.

And many of the cities involved in the By All Means program already had the backbone of such initiatives in place before Reville came calling.

For superintendents, having backing from the mayor and key local players affords them more leverage and credibility when seeking community support, including funding, for programs.

“It’s easier to secure funding from investors when they see that this is not just a pet project of the superintendent,” said Margarita Ruiz, the schools chief in Salem.

For Libby Schaaf, the Oakland mayor, the school-city partnership is an equity issue.

The city’s big project through By All Means is known as The Oakland Promise, made up of several smaller initiatives to support children from birth through college.

One effort, Brilliant Baby, provides up to $500 toward a college fund for babies born to low-income families as well and up to $500 in financial incentives to their parents.

Another initiative, Future Centers, provides college-assistance offices at select middle and high schools that help students with such tasks as filling out financial-aid applications, going on college visits, preparing for interviews with admissions officials, and seeking scholarships.

A third is a college fund, the East Bay College Fund, which provides scholarships, peer mentors, and counseling to students during their college careers.

Nearly $8.5 million in scholarships had been awarded to Oakland students through the East Bay College Fund, with a goal of increasing the awards to more than $20 million and impacting about 10,000 students by 2025. The city has similarly ambitious plans to expand the initiatives in Oakland Promise.

“It’s always been our intention that we touch every single public school student in our entire city, and that’s a lot,” said Schaaf, whose city hired a “sustainability consultant” to help figure out how to keep Oakland Promise going in the long term.

“We are tired of programs that only serve a few. We are tired of nibbling around the edges,” she said.

The program has already brought in multimillion-dollar donations, including from Kaiser-Permanente, which is based in the city, and Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne.

Oakland hopes to fund the Promise programs through a combination of philanthropy, a quasi-endowment that it hopes to grow to $50 million, and public money, from the city, county, state, and, possibly, funds from a November ballot measure to raise taxes on middle- and upper-income property owners to support children’s initiatives in the city.

Schaaf points to students like Jailene Lopez, 18, as tangible evidence that the programs are changing lives.

Lopez, the first in her family to go to college, said she would not have been able to navigate the complex application process without the help of counselors at the Future Center at Castlemont High School. She started classes at the University of California, Berkeley, last month.

Future Center counselors helped her complete financial-aid applications, find a school that best fit her interests and background, and prep her for scholarship interviews when those were necessary, she said.

Her parents, who had big dreams for their daughter, appreciated the weekly calls from counselors to provide updates and remind them of approaching deadlines.

But the biggest benefit “was helping me get into that mindset that I do belong here,” she said of being on the Berkeley campus.

In its 2018 report on Oakland Promise, the city said that students who attended schools with Future Centers were more likely to apply to at least one postsecondary institution when compared with students in schools without such centers. And four-year college-enrollment rates for African-American students rose 14 percent between the 2014-15 school year and the 2015-16 at schools with Future Centers, according to the report.

Part of the problem with sizing up the impact of the By All Means work in its first two years is that the communities chose to focus on different aspects of child development.

Measuring Effectiveness

But officials can point to individual programs that they say are making a difference in students’ lives. In Providence, for example, where about 21 percent of elementary students scored proficient in reading and math in the 2016-17 school year, officials say students who have attended a free summer learning program run by the Boston-based nonprofit Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) notched important gains in math and reading. Students, who are assessed at the beginning and end of the program, gained the equivalent of two months of literacy and three months of math, according to BELL. But the program still serves only a small number of students in the city—fewer than 500 last year and 525 this year.

Reville of the Harvard Redesign Lab said that he never expected to see fast academic results after the first two years—he describes the initiative as “generational work” that takes time. Rather, he said, those initial years were about creating the environment and systems for the school-community partnerships, coming up with financing the programs, and forging the structure to ensure the partnerships outlive current mayors and superintendents.

And there have been bumps along the way, he said.

Figuring out who should serve in a children’s cabinet and ensuring the members reflect the communities they serve were two.

Another is data-sharing among district, city, and community groups without running afoul of student-privacy laws. And perhaps the most vexing: keeping efforts going strong when leadership turns over. It was one of the reasons that Newton withdrew from the program not long after a new mayor was elected.

But in Louisville, Mayor Greg Fischer and Martin Pollio, the still-new superintendent of the Jefferson County school district, are moving full steam ahead despite the early departure last year of the district’s former schools chief.

Even with the threat of a state takeover of the district earlier this year, Fischer said that the By All Means initiatives will put the school system on firmer footing.

Salem officials acknowledge they are still figuring out how to optimize their City Connects work. But the city is proud of strides it has made so far, including brokering a deal with a local hospital, North Shore Community Health, to provide outpatient therapy, case management, and referral at school sites.

Officials are working on a local ride-sharing service to ensure that students can get to and from after-school and sports programs. The children’s cabinet is contemplating a citywide report card that will provide a snapshot of how children are doing on a variety of indicators, including health, academics, access to food, and transportation.

Tomas Castro, 6, tosses a ring onto a hat worn by Angelys Rivas Arias, 6, during a summer learning program in Providence. Math and reading scores have improved among the students who attended the program offered for free by the nonprofit group known as BELL.

The City Connects program comes close to what By All Means project leaders hope the teams in other cities will craft in the second phase.

Students are placed in “tiers,” depending on the level of need after they are assessed. With teachers, coordinators probe into understanding children’s academic profile, asking about favorite subjects, their understanding of concepts taught in class, their track record in finishing homework, and if they appear happy at school. Similarly, coordinators find out if a child has friends, who he or she sits with at lunch, and if the child has a peer he or she seeks out for activities.

Once supports are arranged for students, coordinators monitor progress to see whether they are receiving services and if those are having the intended effect. Students with greater needs get more attention, but the program is meant to be for all students, said Ellen Wingard, the supervisor of City Connects Salem and student and family engagement.

Within a decade, when the program is available in all of Salem’s schools, a high school City Connects coordinator would be able to see not just a student’s academic record but also the activities the student has participated in since childhood, city services that the student and family used over the years, and challenges the student encountered in their educational journey. (To protect student privacy, information in the student’s individual success plan is not shared with the school’s principal.) That fuller picture of the child will allow the schools to better serve students, she said.

Brad Maloon, a City Connects coordinator at Collins Middle School, served as a school adjustment counselor—a kind of social worker—before taking on the new role. He said the program has allowed him to spot problems before they escalate.

As a counselor, he was often reacting to crises, which was not always the best approach, he said.

“You’re solving problems, but those problems don’t need to exist in the first place if certain structures are in place,” he said.

Accounting for Every Need

To protect student privacy, the district has adopted a consent process that puts parents in the driver’s seat in determining whether, what, and how much information they want to share about their children with agencies that are working with the city’s schools.

The program has created a database of resources, agencies, organizations and services—more than 100 to date—that coordinators can tap into.

Some of the new partnerships with community organizations came from surveys and sit-downs with parents.

“It’s just much more efficient, and it’s created lines of communication and relationships,” Wingard said. “And it doesn’t rely just on relationships to get things done. It relies on a system.”

Not all principals were on board with City Connects in the beginning. For one, many were afraid they would lose a staff member to the role (the district restructured positions and gave the school adjustment counselors the option to apply to become City Connects coordinators.) Principals like Thomas Milaschewski, a former principal of Bates Elementary School, felt they were already doing what City Connects was promising.

Before using City Connects, if one of his students had been affected by a fire, Milaschewski would have been the one racing around to find housing, an after-school program, transportation, or food for the student. Now, he no longer has to do that.

“There was no way for me to be able to do that effectively for all of our kids across the building, and I don’t have the background in counseling or in understanding the community at the level that our City Connects coordinator does,” he said. The intensive student reviews have allowed the school to pinpoint issues with children who were doing well academically and may not have been flagged for assistance because of an issue at home.

The program also changed the culture in the building to one in which everyone thinks of the well-being of the whole child, not just his or her academic performance. Milaschewski expects that will pay off in the long run.

“The primary reason is that we’re more proactive and consistent in meeting all the needs of our kids,” he said.

“If a kid comes to school hungry, it’s going to be hard to learn. If a kid comes to school with some social and emotional challenges that aren’t being supported, they are not going to learn. If a child is coming to school and they didn’t sleep at night because there was an issue in their home, they are not going to be as successful academically.

“I think that by having this kind of support for all of our kids and this focus on all of those needs—I have a hard time believing that wouldn’t make a huge difference on academic outcomes.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Thriving Students Are the Goal of City, District Partnerships


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Teens Are Looking for Mental Health Support Online. What That Means for Schools
Young people are turning to websites, social media, and apps for mental health support.
4 min read
Hand holding a mobile phone with an app asking "What is Your Mood Today? Measure Your Mental State" with a blue "Let's Explore" button
Student Well-Being Q&A How to Address Parents' Concerns That SEL Goes Against Their Values
A Texas instructional coach shares insights she has learned from talking with hesitant parents.
3 min read
Illustration concept of emotional intelligence, showing a woman balancing emotion control using her hand to balance smile and sad face icons.
Student Well-Being Pause Before You Post: A Social Media Guide for Educators in Tense Political Times
5 tips for educators and their students to avoid making harmful or false statements online that they later regret.
6 min read
Tight crop of a man's hands using a mobile phone with the popup box that reads "Delete post, Are you sure you want to delete this post? Cancel or Delete"
Gina Tomko/Education Week + Getty
Student Well-Being Opinion What Does the Dangerous Political Climate Mean for Schools?
Educators and researchers offer advice for navigating political polarization in the classroom.
5 min read
Grunge Collage styled urban graphic of US election
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty