Today, Ricky is a smart, confident young man with big dreams. But that’s not where he started. Ricky came to the attention of Donna, his Communities In Schools site coordinator, after missing more than 20 days in his first six weeks of 6th grade. When Donna visited Ricky at home, she learned that he was sharing a single pair of shoes with his younger brother, forcing the boys to attend school on alternating days. Donna quickly intervened, providing new shoes and clothes for both Ricky and his brother. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Ricky returned to school the next day and began spending a lot of time with Donna over the coming weeks. As she gained Ricky’s trust, he began to open up about the challenges he was facing. Ricky was being bullied at school because of his clothes. He was behind in his classes and didn’t feel connected to his teachers or understand the relevance of what he was learning. His mom had lost her job, his dad was incarcerated, and the family was sleeping on one mattress on the floor of their apartment. Clearly, Ricky and his family were in crisis.
Though the details may differ, millions of students nationwide have a story much like Ricky’s. The Southern Education Foundation recently reported that for the first time in 50 years, the majority of students attending public school are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, signaling low income. That’s a challenge for our education system, because kids in poverty have lower graduation rates and higher rates of chronic absenteeism. And while graduation rates are improving overall, according to the U.S. Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics, English language learners and children of color fall further and further behind when poverty is thrown into the mix.
For students like Ricky, being chronically absent is usually the first sign of trouble. His lack of attendance signaled much deeper nonacademic issues that had to be addressed before he could become an active participant in his own education. Donna recognized these issues and brokered many supports for Ricky and his family – clothing and furniture, mediation with teachers, counseling and tutoring for Ricky and his brother, job readiness and placement for the boys’ mom. Fortunately, there are people like Donna in schools all around the country, helping to monitor low-income students and connect them with the resources they need to overcome a challenging environment.
This approach goes by many names (community schools, wraparound services, integrated student supports), but the premise is the same, and the outcomes are similarly encouraging. In fact, Child Trends has identified a number of organizations achieving results with at-risk students (Communities In Schools, Children’s Aid Society, Say Yes to Education, and City Connects to name a few) and documented the common elements of success for these supports:
Results are promising when these models are implemented well – graduation rate go up, dropout rates go down, attendance and academic achievement improve, and kids are promoted to the next grade level on time. States Legislatures in Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia are investing in integrated students supports as they see the long view, that there is an economic benefit to graduating more students. Other states should consider similar investments in proven programs to support struggling students.
If our low-income students are going to be successful in college, we know that integrating support cannot stop at graduation. Postsecondary institutions must acknowledge the needs of so many first-generation college students arriving at their doorsteps. As a member of the Advisory Committee for the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at AIR, I am pleased to see that student supports like these are part of the College and Career Success Organizer, providing institutions, with a roadmap to ensure low-income students get the support they need to leave their campuses with a high school diploma and a college degree.
Ricky will attest that Donna and the supports she brokered made all the difference. That single pair of shoes opened the door to a future. Ricky just graduated and will attend college where he will study communications. With the right attitude, support, and skills, Ricky will be the next Blake Mycoskie and provide shoes for the next generation.