I wrote my doctoral dissertation, back in 2001, on the topic of collaborative leadership. More specifically, I focused on the need for superintendents and directors of community service agencies to work together in support of at-risk youth.  

My interest in the topic stemmed from my time as a teacher of severely emotionally disturbed adolescents in Brooklyn, N.Y. In that job, I was often confronted by the glaring disconnect between my school’s academic priorities — I was charged with preparing students for the New York Global Studies Regents exam — and my students’ nonacademic needs. Some were on the autism spectrum, others had severe emotional and behavioral problems, and all of them came to school from chaotic environments that did little to help them cope with the challenges they faced. Since an early age, all had been misdiagnosed by health workers and mislabeled by school officials. Most had been kicked out of school several times. And then, somehow, they had wound up with me, a new teacher with a lot of size (I’m 6’5″) but few skills.  

As I soon learned, all of these students had been, and continued to be, let down by the city and its various departments and agencies. Many had been involved with the juvenile justice system. Most had lived in multiple foster homes or had been bounced among family members’ apartments. None had been assigned a true advocate, somebody who could ensure that they received appropriate services. And while all of them had the names of social workers listed in their files, I was never able to reach or meet with any of those people. And therein lay my frustration, which eventually led to my dissertation and a question that has dogged me throughout my professional life: Can’t educators and social service providers do a better job of working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and families?  

Can’t educators and social service providers do a better job of working together to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and families? 

I strongly support the community school model, as does the great majority of Americans — in the latest PDK poll, 74% of respondents said they would approve of giving their schools additional public money to provide wrap-around services focusing on mental health, nutrition, college counseling, and other needs. At the same time, though, I worry that the community school movement has been slow to address a couple of problems that could undermine its work over the long term, one problem having to do with its use of resources and the other with its use of data. 

When more resources aren’t the answer 

I was never a district superintendent during good economic times. In 2005, during my first year in Stamford, Conn., we enjoyed a modest budget increase, but after that the city went through two years of property tax reevaluation — which makes local elected officials loath to increase taxes — and then the Great Recession began. In 2011, when I started in Montgomery County, Md., the economic situation was still bleak, and we had to battle county legislators over the state’s “maintenance of effort” statute.  

For superintendents, however, there’s a silver lining to every economic downturn: Fiscal crises require them to confront the “give me more stuff” attitude that’s pervasive among local educators. Every budget season, without fail, principals and central office administrators will argue that they can’t possibly take on new responsibilities and meet new goals unless they’re given new resources. And to some extent they’re right — most school systems are woefully underfunded, and massive infusions of cash would be needed for them to raise salaries, fix infrastructure, update their technology, and overhaul the curriculum. But even so, I’ve never known a district that couldn’t use its existing resources more efficiently and effectively, particularly when it comes to supporting the most vulnerable kids. That’s why I swore to myself, years ago, that I would never ask my local funding authority for more money until local school leaders, district staff, and I had truly exhausted all the resources at our disposal. And when budget shortfalls forced us to be creative, we always seemed to be able to find ways to serve kids better with the funds we already had. 

Does the community school movement suffer from the “give me more stuff” syndrome? It probably does. When advocating on behalf of struggling students and families, it’s always tempting to demand that district leaders hire more social workers or parent coordinators or nurses. Rarely do advocates pause first to ask themselves whether the district’s existing services are as effective as they could be. 

For example, Title I programs include funds school and central office staff can use to support families. So do most programs designed to serve English language learners or students with special needs. But I don’t know many districts that have set up clear expectations, supervisory roles, and accountability systems to ensure the quality of those efforts. Further, since their jobs often depend on the number of families they serve, staff members may have a perverse incentive to keep those families reliant on them. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that family engagement isn’t important — it is. However, before agreeing to fund additional staff positions, shouldn’t we make sure that every staff member who has a family-facing responsibility in their job description is actually doing that work (and doing it effectively)?   


Getting the right data — and using it 

To decide whether or not to provide a student with additional supports, school and district leaders rely mainly on test scores and other academic achievement data. They might also look at discipline and attendance records, and they’ll consider whether the child is in special education or is an English language learner. By and large, though, it’s students’ poor academic performance that triggers the decision to give them extra services, and those services tend to be academic in nature. But, of course, when kids do poorly on academic measures, it’s often because they’re struggling with problems that aren’t academic at all — something’s happening at home, or they’re depressed, or they can’t afford glasses, and so on. It may be helpful to provide them with pull-out tutoring or other academic resources (which is how Title I dollars tend to be used), but this does nothing to address the deeper challenges that kids are facing.   

In an effort to be more proactive in identifying students’ needs and providing them with appropriate services, growing numbers of schools and districts have adopted early warning indicators (EWIs), often drawing on the work of organizations such as the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. For example, when I was superintendent in Montgomery County, we developed a set of indicators focusing on what experts have termed the “ABCs”: attendance, behavior, and course grades. We found that as early as the first quarter of 1st grade, we could identify whether a given student was on track to graduate on time, 11 years later. The kids with the most egregious behavior problems, attendance issues, or academic needs had always stood out, principals told me. But with the new EWI system, they were able to identify students they might otherwise have missed. Young children who have only one failing grade, a few absences, and a couple of disciplinary incidents tend to fly under the radar, but when taken together, these factors point to serious obstacles down the road.   

When advocating on behalf of struggling students and families, it’s always tempting to demand that district leaders hire more social workers or parent coordinators or nurses. 

But while having a good data system is necessary, it’s not sufficient. It has to be complemented with clear expectations and structures for action. In Montgomery County, we developed our EWI system within the context of a larger focus on social and emotional learning, making it a priority not just to collect and analyze student data but also to reach out to and build supportive relationships with the families of students found to be struggling. This meant that our teachers and staff needed both technical assistance — to help them make sense of the data — and time and support for the delicate work of forging bonds with local parents and other caretakers (which, for our mostly white workforce, often meant learning how to communicate effectively across cultural and racial boundaries). Further, while we already had a network of school-based teams charged with coordinating social services and academic supports (the district had a long history of doing this kind of work), we realized that we had to expand it, given that our EWI system promised to identify many vulnerable students who had previously slipped through the cracks. 

All of this is to say that the process of identifying and responding to students’ needs is enormously complicated. Ideally, schools will begin with early warning indicators to identify kids who aren’t on track to graduate on time, teachers and staff will know how to interpret that data, school leaders will give them time and resources to build relationships with students and families, and school teams will coordinate among district resources and community assets to provide the supports children and families need. 

Most community schools have skilled coordinators and cross-functional teams. They tend to have committed leaders, strong relationships with local community-based organizations, and a commitment to delivering a wide range of services and supports. My concern, though, is that for many community schools, data use remains a weak link. The question is, what will it take to build the kinds of early warning indicators and other data systems that can help community schools identify and respond to vulnerable children at the first signs of trouble, before they’ve experienced the kinds of chronic and long-term neglect suffered by my students in Brooklyn?   

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

Originally published in March 2018 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (6) 70-71. © 2018 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.