Student Well-Being Q&A

Q & A: Connecting Community Resources to the Students Who Need Them Most

By Evie Blad — August 21, 2023 6 min read
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Community groups often stand at the ready to help schools with challenges like hunger, housing instability, and mentorship needs, but it takes a thoughtful person to connect those resources to the students who need them most and to monitor their progress, said Rey Saldaña, President and CEO of Communities in Schools.

The national nonprofit organization trains school-based coordinators to help manage what it calls “integrated student supports,” like donations and social services provided by out-of-school organizations. Those coordinators use data about factors like absenteeism to monitor the effectiveness of their work and to identify students who help.

Communities in Schools recently announced two new initiatives. A $13 million donation from the Ballmer Group will allow the organization’s state and local affiliates to offer Communities in Schools programming at 213 new schools and expand offerings at 32 existing sites, reaching 130,000 new students. Affected schools will match the Ballmer contribution for three years before committing to covering the costs on their own. The $13 million is the first tranche from a $165 million donation that the Ballmer Group, a philanthropic organization founded by former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, announced in February.

The second effort involves an innovative cohort of six school districts in areas without Communities in Schools affiliates. Rather than placing its own coordinators in schools, the organization will train existing school employees in its model and commission an independent evaluation of their results. This project will be supported by a $10 million gift from The Studio @ Blue Meridian, a philanthropy group.

Saldaña spoke to Education Week about the importance of student supports in districts’ recovery efforts.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you explain “integrated student supports” to someone who is unfamiliar with the concept?

I want folks to think about it as an added person into the ecosystem of a school to connect with students and build relationships.

Rey Saldaña

Schools now are asking, how do we build support systems for students for non-academic issues? Namely, if they’ve got unstable housing, if they’ve got food insecurity issues. How do we ensure a student shows up if they don’t have clean clothing, or if they have a parent who is incarcerated or dealing with addiction or trauma? If you don’t care for those issues, then you’re not going to really have a lot of success with math and reading scores.

Integrated supports means you have to understand how you manage a data system that tracks a student’s progress, that that staff member understands how to do an assessment of the community resources, whether those are the local food banks, mental health services, optometrists, or legal services.

How do we invite [community organizations] to cut through the red tape to get resources to the students in in the school day? That is hard work. It’s not complicated work, but it is hard work.

Schools are dealing with high levels of chronic absenteeism. And educators were concerned about student mental health even before the pandemic. Why is this an important moment for your organization?

What this work looks like in Charlotte, N.C., is different than what it looks like on the border in Laredo, Texas, and different than it how would look in in Chicago. We are learning how to customize the work in a standard way. I think it’s really advanced the field that Communities in Schools has been helping to build that understand the importance of wraparound Student Services, along with other strong nonprofits.

We’ve grown from about 2,500 schools that we were operating in in 2020 to 3,200 in the span of the last three years. And that’s a growth clip we just haven’t seen. We are getting calls from superintendents who say, “You are in 10 of our schools, but we need you in 20.”

How will this new cohort of six districts work? How is it different from your traditional model?

If we’re going to open up in Jackson, Miss., in our traditional fashion, we find an executive director, we establish a local board, and it takes us some time to make sure that we are fundraising to establish the funding resources we need.

This opportunity is helping us bypass this, for the sake of the urgent need we’re seeing in communities who want to be trained on how to do this work.

We at the national office will send over the trainers who can certify the existing staff on their campuses. And part of that contract commitment from the school district is that the staff members will be able to focus on the Communities in Schools model. We can’t have this staff member also be doing truancy roundups. This has to be about building relationships with young people.

How might the external evaluation of that cohort contribute to the field?

We have to learn what sticks. School systems are really hard to change in how they treat students who are disruptive in class, who aren’t showing up for 10 percent of the school year. There are, in many cases, punitive paths for that kind of behavior ... that only make those students disconnect more from the school.

What we hope to learn is how to train staff members to build relationships with those young people? What is the buy-in we need from principals? What are the measures that truly drive impact?

Will the funding from the Ballmer group help you expand work in states where you already have affiliates?

One of the most significant pieces of what we’re getting ... is that they are allowing a real-time learning process to happen amongst our affiliates. This allows our affiliates to go to a superintendent and say, “We want to expand to a few more schools and we’re going to pay for 50 percent of the cost for the next three years if you will contribute [the rest]—whether those are Title I funds, state funding, or county funds—to help meet the need.

We don’t want to have to fire 1,000 people after five years. There has to be skin in the game locally.

You’re doing this as schools prepare for the end of COVID relief funding, which many used to support this kind of student-support work.

What [school district leaders] have told us is, “This is great that we’ve got some national funding to seed this work. We think we’re going to prove why this work is necessary long term to our local city council or school board or legislature.”

We think that the kind of results they see—not just on the basic issues around attendance or dropout prevention, but in the level of engagement that we hope to see with the students—will be enough to drive some important decision-making a few years down the road.

For a lot of us, this work feels personal.

As the leader of the organization, it’s personal for me as somebody who’s gone through the program myself [as a child] and knows what a difference it is when you’ve got a safety net and somebody you can turn to.

One of the biggest losses from the pandemic has been those relationships inside schools for students who ask, “Who can I count on when I’m dealing with something at home?” and “Who’s going to be around, even if I reject the fact that they want to help?”

I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and I think the time has come for us to think about how we support students who are growing in need in this time.

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