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Commentary: At SXSW EDU, we’re focused on helping every child succeed

March 7, 2018

Texans have a way of coming together during times of great need — and the state’s heroic response to Hurricane Harvey last year reminds us what is possible. But a very different crisis that impacts millions of Texas schoolchildren demands a similar “emergency” response and calls to mind some of the lessons of courage and community that we saw in Harvey’s wake.
A student who is hungry, homeless or without adequate health care is less likely than their more fortunate peers to thrive, no matter the academic setting. One data point crystallizes the issue in a sobering way: As the share of Texas students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch in a school district or elementary school rises, the share who meet grade-level standards falls. Other measurements confirm a strong poverty-success correlation, which is critically important in a state with high rates of childhood poverty.

This week at SXSW EDU, education leaders from across the country will hear about an innovative approach rooted in a sense of collective responsibility toward all children. Out is the model of simply focusing on schools; in is a more holistic approach like ours that puts students at the center of a range of efforts that extend well beyond the classroom.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the three networks — Communities In Schools, StriveTogether and Coalition for Community Schools — are investing in Texas school systems and others around the country to set priorities, build trust, work with all parts of the community and improve data so that our partners can track and share each child’s progress. The goal, ultimately, is to improve a host of outcomes, from kindergarten-readiness to college completion.

What we suggest is ambitious and audacious, as it should be because of the stakes involved.

Every institution and individual in a community has a role to play including family and community foundations, social service nonprofits, colleges and universities, daycare and Head Start centers, faith groups, small and large businesses as well as state and local government agencies.

We know this approach works and have seen the results. Here in Austin, for example, the spirit of collaboration has brought about a districtwide data system that ensures every child who needs a service receives it, whether provided by the Austin Independent School District or a nonprofit. Another partnership, Central Texas Mentoring Collaborative, combined the strengths of mentoring nonprofits, city and county government, Austin ISD, and the universities, law firms and other businesses that provide a pipeline of committed volunteers. Two years ago, the group created a set of standards that anyone mentoring Austin ISD students must meet: a step that has boosted the number and quality of mentors working to improve student behavior and social and emotional development.

In Dallas, AT&T helped the school district and colleges launch a texting serve to remind high school seniors about college enrollment, a pilot program in which students who received texts were 13 percent more likely than their peers to enroll in college.

There is more work to do, of course. But these are important strides representing a sea change in how we think about education fixes: from efforts centered around “good” and “bad” schools to efforts that focus sharply on the needs of children.

In times of crisis, as with Harvey, it’s easy to see when students lack stable homes, clothing or food. But for many students living in poverty, the storm never subsides. By creating a system to help students beyond the classroom, the clouds will finally break — and millions of Texas students will have an opportunity for a brighter future.

Steinhauser is chief executive officer of Communities In Schools of Central Texas. McCullough is the chief operating officer of the nationwide organization.

Read the full piece in The Statesman