Want More Kids to Graduate? Keep Them Well Fed and Healthy

Addressing the needs of kids living in poverty makes them more likely to earn high school diplomas.
(Photo: Courtesy Communities in Schools)
May 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s the dark, lingering shadow behind a towering achievement: As the U.S. high school graduation rate surges toward 90 percent, millions of students—mostly black and Latino—drop out each year because they’re too poor to come to school.

But in a new report, the anti-dropout agency Community in Schools has found that implementing “wraparound services”—integrating social services into schools by giving hungry students access to food, helping them find medical or psychiatric care, and getting them rides to and from the classroom—can help raise the odds that at-risk students make it to graduation day.

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Studying how wraparound services work “allowed us to see the effect of our evidence-based model” on low-income students, said Steve Majors, Communities in Schools’ vice president for communications. “We know from our nearly 40 years of experience serving this population that we can help keep these kids in school and on a path to graduation, but the data in our report now reaffirms that.”

“The country has now reached a record 82 percent graduation rate, yet there are populations of [low-income] students who are being left behind,” Majors said.

(Photo: Courtesy Communities in Schools)

Statistics show a majority of the nation’s public school students are students of color, and most of them qualify for free or reduced lunches, a marker of poverty. Meanwhile, the Every Student Succeeds Act, a new federal education law, encourages school districts to do more to keep low-income students “in school and on the path to graduation.”

That support can be crucial, according to Daria Hall, vice president for communications and legislative affairs for The Education Trust, a nonprofit education think tank specializing in poor and minority student advocacy.

“Students from low-income households are less likely to have access to a range of things that contribute to success in school, from adequate health care to nutrition to transportation,” Hall wrote in an email to TakePart. Weaving social services into schools, she wrote, “can help bridge these gaps and ensure that students are ready to learn.”

Yet the graduation gaps between whites and poor minorities “aren’t happenstance,” Hall wrote. “They come from concerted choices: about the way we fund our schools; about who teaches whom; about how we counsel students; and about what kinds of assignments we give students.”

In other words, “we take students who have less outside of school and give them less of everything that research and experience tell us matter once they are inside the school doors,” she wrote.

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Experts and teachers agree: Poverty is an invisible barrier that can keep struggling students from even coming to school, let alone achieving. Some impoverished young people are homeless and don’t have access to food, proper clothing, shoes, or even eyeglasses. Others may not have transportation to school or may have to work to support their families.

The wraparound-services model, such as that used by Communities in Schools, starts with a point person who acts as a liaison among the students, school officials, local businesses, and community agencies. After analyzing data—which students are falling behind, what kind of services they need and from where—the team comes up with a plan to deliver them and follows up and adjusts as necessary.

The method streamlines a social service system that’s “very fragmented” and at times overwhelming, said Sarah Gillespie, a research associate with the nonprofit Urban Institute. Poor students and their families, she said, “have to think about [navigating services] in silos. That can be a really hard system to navigate.”

Integrating services into the school system helps advocates get a “holistic” view of a student’s family and their needs, Gillespie said, which can help stabilize a family. That in turn can help a student achieve, raising the odds of getting an education and moving up the socioeconomic ladder.

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According to the report, 1.5 million students and their families “were directly connected to resources by Communities in Schools.” Forty-three percent of the nonprofit’s clients are Latino, 35 percent are black, and 17 percent are white.

“Among students receiving intensive services, 78 percent met attendance goals, 85 percent met academic goals and 89 percent met behavior goals for the school year,” according to the report. “Most importantly, 99 percent of potential dropouts stayed in school, 93 percent of seniors graduated, and 93 percent of K–11 students were promoted to the next grade.”

The key is establishing “one person whose job it is to take in the full picture” of what a student needs, Gillespie said. The goal is to “make sure all students come to school on an equal playing field” that allows them to achieve.

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Ensuring students stay in school and graduate has long-term implications for the economic health of the nation. “A student who drops out of school and fails to graduate high school will earn far less over their lifetime than a graduate,” Majors said. “They are more likely to rely on social services and more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. So we’re not just talking about the economic impact on individuals but also the economic impact on communities and our country.”

The success of Communities in Schools and similar programs around the nation is impressive, but it “doesn’t mean everyone has gotten the hang of it,” Gillespie said, noting that some systems are more effective than others, and the philosophy is emerging. “It’s a work in progress.”

(Photo: Courtesy Communities in Schools)