Jane Mentzinger, Communities in Schools

On a chilly morning last October, more than 200 students gathered in the gymnasium at Westcott Elementary School to participate in a special assembly. Children as young as three years old cheered as, one by one, the school’s Pk-4th grade classes marched across the stage. There, student representatives from each class waited anxiously for the school’s principal to bestow a special placard of the Historically Black College/University (HBCU) that their classes had researched the previous month.  

“We wanted to demystify the idea of college for our students and to allow them an opportunity to connect their current classroom environment with their future ones,” said Stephanie Mistretta, a case manager from our organization who works full time at Westcott to support students’ social, emotional and physical health. “Linking each room to a vibrant HBCU is the first of many steps we want to take toward promoting a kindergarten-to-college culture among all students, teachers and staff members.”

Despite the heroic efforts of Mistretta and thousands of teachers and administrators across CPS, the substantial social and economic benefits of a college degree remain elusive for too many students. As the Chicago Tribune reported last fall, only eight percent of the annual ninth-grade cohort of 30,000 students, graduate from college by their mid-twenties. A third fail to earn a high school diploma after five years. The reasons for this crisis are complex: grinding poverty, limited early childhood education, family trauma, high rates of teacher and principal turnover and the inability of families and schools to fully support the social and emotional needs of children that undergird achievement.

What more can we do to ensure that the majority of ninth-graders in Chicago – representing an army division of 15,000+ potential business owners, social entrepreneurs, invested parents and taxpayers – graduate from college prepared to fully engage with the global economy? First, we must recognize that our children’s academic success is inextricably linked with their social, emotional and physical well-being. If children are afraid to come to school, chronically sick or perpetually in “fight-or-flight” mode as a response to violence and trauma, they will not be able to benefit from even the most engaging science and math lessons. 

In light of this, we offer three recommendations to make our school system more responsive to the whole child.

Full-Time Social Workers for All Schools: Social workers are schools’ first responders for helping students in crisis. They also play an important role in carrying out individualized learning plans for special needs students, and can work with targeted students of all abilities who need help controlling their anger, coping with grief and loss, and managing a host of other personal problems that interfere with learning. Yet, in the city that pioneered the role of school social worker, only 16 schools out of more than 600 benefited from a full-time social worker in 2012, according to an analysis by Catalyst Chicago. Budget constraints mean that most schools in the system must instead settle for this critical support for only 2-3 days a week. Such an unsatisfactory arrangement minimizes the amount of time these trained professionals spend working with at-risk students who need short- and medium-term interventions to straighten out their lives and refocus on academics. While deploying a full-time social worker at every CPS school to work in this expanded capacity would represent a major annual investment for a cash-strapped district, that price must be carefully weighed against the litany of potential costs – from public assistance outlays to $143-a-day jail stints – that our city and region absorb each time a student drops out.

Coordinated Social-Emotional Education Support for All Students: Not every student in CPS, fortunately, requires the individualized support of a social worker. But every child, from preschool to 12th grade, does need to participate in lessons and activities that build their social and emotional resilience. CPS participation since 2008 in a tiered support system has helped address this challenge. This model offers schools a useful, data-driven framework to provide a range of social-emotional and academic supports to students with varying levels of need. But principals and other school leaders have anecdotally shared with our organization the challenges of implementing quality, evidence-based life skills programs for all students at the same time that they are trying to maximize every minute for teaching. If the school district is serious about schools offering a system of academic and social-emotional support for children, it must hold principals, teachers and support staff equally accountable for implementing both aspects of this plan.

Promotion of Evidence-Based Practice: CPS and organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning have done an admirable job compiling lists of effective social-emotional learning curricula available to schools. But, for every service provider whose program receives an official stamp of approval, there are dozens more delivering unproven programs in our schools. This is not for lack of interest on the part of these un-vetted organizations. Interviews of prevention education organizations recently conducted by our organization found that these agencies are desperate for hard data demonstrating the impact of their services on students.

Happily, social scientists are increasingly adopting controlled experiment models, long used in drug trials, to determine the effectiveness of education policies. As a result, the potential is growing for schools to have a more comprehensive list of quality program providers to choose from.

To reach that point, however, steps must be taken to make it easier for social service agencies to participate in such research. This means helping more non-profits find creative and cost-effective ways to partner with independent consultants or university researchers to design valid experimental models, navigate thorny ethical issues, and forge appropriate data-sharing agreements with the school district.  Civic organizations like the Chicago Community Trust could hasten the process by creating platforms for non-profit organizations to highlight their need for evidence-based data. More foundations and corporations could assist the effort by earmarking portions of their total grant funds each year to specifically support formal evaluation studies of school-based programs. And directors of social service agencies can be encouraged to think of research costs as permanent line items in their organizations’ annual budgeting process.

Chicagoans have long embraced Daniel Burnham’s famous dictum to make no small plans. But it is another, less-heralded sentiment of this great planner that should be given equal weight as we consider how to renew our city. To paraphrase Burnham: We must remember that our children and grandchildren are going to do things that will stagger us. The question is, will we provide them the support they need to ensure that they astound us with their future accomplishments–or with their unrealized dreams?

Jane Mentzinger is executive director and Bartholomew St. John is director of program, for Communities in Schools of Chicago.


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