The solution sounds simple: Classroom teachers can spend more time on instruction when they get more help connecting students with social services. Many district leaders are, of course, offering such assistance by partnering with physicians, mental health care providers, food banks and other social services—and by establishing community schools.
But resources can be stretched thin, particularly during staff shortages. And this situation often disproportionately impacts students who need support the most, says Danika Mills, a former school-based mental health therapist and the state network director at Unite Us, a company that strengthens links to social service and medical providers.
One way to improve these efforts lies in the technological realm of data-sharing. “Schools are student- and family-centered—they are the hub to coordinate all mental, physical and social-emotional health needs in an accessible way,” Mills says. “When resources are unlocked, administrative needs are reduced and it gives teachers more time.”
Schools and their community partners, for instance, can share an integrated technology platform to create a more secure and seamless system for referring students for outside in-person and online care, Mills says. This approach is far superior to the hand-written notes and Excel spreadsheet she used for managing referrals when she worked in K-12, she adds.
Having technology in place that reduces administrative tasks can also help administrators maintain support services during the staff shortages that are hitting schools as they strive to return to full in-person learning. “Teachers are going to have eyes on students in ways they haven’t had in some time, and it will give them better opportunities to identify needs,” Mills says. “If there is an underlying technology that then helps them connect with services, that allows teachers more time to do what they do so well.”
Social services in community schools
Such technology could also turbocharge the community schools model a few states and many districts are adopting in the wake of the pandemic. New York City’s community schools have seen improved attendance and on-time grade progression, and fewer disciplinary incidents, according to an analysis.
California is placing a $3 billion bet on community schools that embed health, dental, therapeutic and other family support services in school buildings where they are most accessible to students.
California’s initiative prioritizes extended learning time and the inclusion of teachers, families and other stakeholders in decision-making. The model should also help administrators build on the “all hands on deck” momentum of the pandemic when nonprofits and businesses acted quickly to shore up the services provided by K-12, says Robin Lake, a researcher and the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education think tank at Arizona State University.
“It’s now a latent asset that’s sitting out there waiting,” Lake says. “This is a marriage that aligns outside supports for mental health and other non-academic needs with inside support for strong academic outcomes.”
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