In traditionally underserved school districts, children need more than academic supports and high quality teaching to succeed. Students and their families must also be able to access an extra layer of social, developmental and health supports to create an adequate "learning baseline" for all students.
In addition to a rigorous curriculum and supplemental academic supports, all children need basic social, developmental, health, and nutritional supports to provide a strong foundation for learning. An increasing number of high achieving schools in low-income and underserved minority communities are helping to improve their academic outcomes by increasing the array of counseling, support and health services available to students and their families.
By supporting the federal school breakfast and lunch programs, policymakers have long acknowledged the role that adequate, nutritious meals play in boosting children’s ability to learn. In addition to nutritional supports, however, many schools are taking an even more aggressive stance against obesity, diabetes and other health problems. With the support of parents and the local community, an increasing number of schools are attempting to eliminate vending machines that sell junk food, increase the range of healthy foods available in the school cafeteria, and cancel contracts with fast food franchises that provide unhealthy choices for school meals. In addition, some schools are restricting students’ ability to leave the premises during school hours, partly to curb access to nearby fast food restaurants. Coupled with more targeted curricula on healthy eating and concrete strategies for educating students about the danger of obesity and related issues, some schools are giving their students a healthier foundation for academic success.
The George I. Sanchez School has brought the provision of on-site "wraparound" services to a new level. On its Houston campus, the school offers a full service health clinic that provides pre-natal care, HIV and STD outreach and prevention services, parenting classes, immunizations, and other routine care. To support teen parents, the school offers free child care and pre-k education services for 60 children between the ages of 6 months and four years. In addition to gang intervention and other targeted prevention programs, the school also operates two shelters - one for homeless youth and the other for students with substance abuse issues.
The Comer School Development Program (SDP), implemented in hundreds of schools across the country, is based on research suggesting that too many low-income and minority children enter school with significant developmental gaps that impair their ability to learn. To address these deficits, SDP uses basic child and adolescent developmental principles as the foundation for all aspects of school design, from organizational structure and classroom management to curriculum development and teaching. In sharp contrast to the pervasive "academic deficit theory" that has led to "tracking" and other lowered expectations for minority and lower-income students in some school districts, the Comer Process grounds academic success in a solid understanding of child development in several key areas: physical, psychological, language, social, ethical and cognitive. By integrating a child’s diverse developmental needs with underlying social supports, SDP has significantly improved the academic outcomes of its students.
Even with adequate funding and facilities, children will not succeed unless the adults in their lives - teachers, parents, and school leaders - have high expectations for them and teach them that they can succeed. Some high-performing schools have accomplished this goal by providing students a more significant role or "voice" in school leadership and important decisions. Other schools are teaching students new ways to mediate their own disputes and establish greater control in their relationships with peers, parents, and teachers. Mentoring programs that encourage older students to help younger students have also been successful in getting both groups more invested in their academic futures.
Ohio’s "Schools of Promise" have found that in addition to ambitious academic goals and standards-based instruction, students uniformly report that their opinions are valued and that they feel responsible for their academic success. Says Dr. Joseph Johnson, the former director of the Schools of Promise program, "in successful schools, children of all ages tell us that they are treated with respect and learning is fun - they feel like they belong."
The Comer School Development Program is another promising approach that encourages students to believe that they can succeed inside and outside the classroom. By learning the six "developmental pathways" - the developmental basis for academic learning and life - students are taught to identify what they need most from teachers and other children in their class and find constructive ways to make those needs known. The result is that students are taught to exercise control and responsibility for their own success and ensure that personal conflict does not impede academic learning.