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Education reform should start with wraparound services for low-income students

By Steve Majors | Dec. 11, 2020

In a new blog for "The Hill", CIS President and CEO Rey Saldaña and Rep. Susie Lee explain why they believe the reform of the education system should incorporate integrated student supports or wraparound services for students who are low-income or have a history of marginalization. 

Last month, longtime educator and incoming first lady Jill Biden tweeted these words out to a nation struggling to support its students in the face of a pandemic: “Educators: this is our moment.”

Biden’s promise to ensure every child can thrive — no matter where they live or where they come from — arrives at a fragile time. We’ve endured four years of virtually no federal leadership or action on education. The pandemic has worsened conditions for marginalized students from low-income and minority backgrounds and their families who are experiencing even more job losshunger and, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co, are now falling months behind their white peers as virtual learning further widens the education gap.

It’s always been true that student success goes well beyond the classroom. This pandemic has reminded the nation of that fact in stark terms.

That’s why we believe that to build a thriving education system, we must start here: making sure every school serving a high population of low-income students can provide not just high-quality learning but also the ingredients that enable students to succeed in school and in life, such as food security and mental health care. To ensure budget-strapped school districts can meet students’ needs outside the classroom, Congress should pass the Communities Serving Schools Act as soon as possible. Introduced by Rep. Lee earlier this year, it will establish a $1 billion grant program to enable schools to invest in wrap-around services — and coordinators to run them.

These programs support the whole child by providing students, particularly those in underserved, low-income communities, with help tailored to the needs of schools and their students, such as tutoring, after school programs, college prep, nutrition and mental health support.

A deep investment in this model of education is needed now more than ever because of the far-reaching effects of the pandemic. Closing schools, while necessary in so many communities, not only disrupts student learning, particularly for students of color and low-income students. It also has made it more challenging for schools to give students access to regular meals. It separates children from their friends, their family, and other people they need for their emotional well-being, at a time when stress is high.

From doubling mental health support and school counselors to tripling funding for Title I schools — which serve a high population of low-income students — it’s clear that President-elect Biden means business when it comes to improving public education. We agree, and have told the incoming administration that there is a long list of things the nation must do to help all students stay in school and put them on a path to a brighter future, from passing a stimulus package that provides emergency funding for K-12 education to boosting schools’ ability to feed hungry kids.

The Communities Serving Schools Act will bolster these efforts by enabling high-poverty school districts to partner with nonprofits with expertise in providing evidence-based wrap-around services. That way, schools can focus on what they do best — educating students — and their partners can fight the effects of poverty, like hunger and lack of health care, that can keep kids from learning.

Communities In Schools, a national education nonprofit, has already shown how effective providing wrap-around services that reflect the needs of the school community can be. In fact, our locally focused, adaptable approach has been particularly valuable for students and their families during these difficult times, from providing virtual check-ins to helping with food distribution to ensuring access to internet.

As states and localities struggle to stay afloat financially during the pandemic, it comes down to the federal government to secure these essential services for students across the nation. Existing funding streams are too broad to support this initiative — we need a specific grant program dedicated to providing schools with wrap-around services and a coordinator to run them so no child falls between the cracks.

We’ve both seen how kids can thrive when they get the right support, and one of us was once the beneficiary of a wraparound program. We know we’ll need to focus on making American public education work for every child long after families are vaccinated and every American classroom is back in person. Passing the Communities Serving Schools Act will be the first step to alleviating the suffering of students across America brought on by COVID-19 and fixing our education system for generations to come.

Susie Lee is U.S. representative for Nevada’s 3rd District and former president of Communities In Schools of Nevada, which provides wrap-around social and educational services to over 64,000 students in 63 schools. She is the sponsor of the Communities Serving Schools Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rey Saldaña is president and CEO of Communities In Schools, the national organization that ensures all students are on a path to success. As a student, he was supported by Communities In Schools – San Antonio. Later, he served four terms as a San Antonio city council member.

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