Wraparound Services: the Next Phase of Education Reform

Wraparound Services: the Next Phase of Education Reform
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A slice of data released in a survey earlier this month shows surprising support for an underappreciated approach to education reform: providing students with more wraparound school services like therapy and medical care.

More than 85 percent of all Americans believe schools should provide mental health service, according to the latest PDK poll, a survey of the public’s attitudes about the nation’s schools.

What’s more, 79 percent think schools should provide general health services to students who need them, according to the survey. Support for wraparound services was even high across party lines, with 68 percent of Republicans—and 65 percent of “strong conservatives” —agreeing that schools should provide them.

Wraparound services are a critical but often overlooked component of school reform. The past decade of education reform rightly focused on setting standards for what students should know and designing systems to hold teachers, schools and districts accountable for students meeting expectations.

But this traditional policy framework often neglected some of the out-of-school factors that impact student learning. Poverty presents serious challenges for learning and education. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to have been exposed to lead, for example, which can negatively affect their development. Poor communities also have higher incidents of childhood asthma. And low-income children are more likely to have undiagnosed and untreated eyesight problems and are more likely to eat food that is not nutritious.

These types of out-of-school factors put low-income students at huge disadvantages before they even start school, and studies show that such achievements gaps only grow over time.

Wraparound services, like counseling or food support, help address issues of poverty, and when these services are in place, student achievement often soars.

A comprehensive study of 7,900 students who attended schools that connected families to support services makes this clear. These students started with low grades but had much higher outcomes at the end of fifth grade than students who attended other schools. The achievement gap between English Language Learners and native speakers was also eliminated by third grade. Students who received services attended school more and dropped out of high school at half the rate of students who did not. 

But simply providing students with services—like eye screening or health care—is just the floor. Some innovative schools have taken steps to fuse academics with wraparound supports. Known as community schools, these institutions aim to serve as neighborhood hubs that educate students and provide families with whatever additional services they may need.

Geoffrey Canada is well-known for founding the Harlem Children’s Zone. The organization consists of multiple charter schools and a pipeline of programs that provide students and families with support from a child’s cradle to college continuum. Today, the Zone serves 12,000 students and families across ninety-seven city blocks.

The success of the Harlem Children Zone inspired President Obama’s campaign proposal for the Promise Zone initiative, which sought to replicate Mr. Canada’s success in cities across the country. Several planning and implementation grants have been awarded, but the initiative has not enjoyed the necessary funding or political support from Congress.

To be sure, wraparound services are not a substitute for a classroom of well-trained teachers and challenging curriculum in a fairly-funded school. These other components of school reform remain important. Community schools can also be pricey; the Promise Zone grants awarded in 2016 ranged from $2 to $6 million.

But research shows how impactful wraparound services can be, and now we have evidence that the public deeply supports these schools too. Lawmakers should take note by increasing investments in the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, and 21st Century Community Learning Centers in Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Put more exactly, the majority of Americans believe that the next phase of education reform must help improve student supports and other forms of wraparound services.

Abel McDaniels is a research assistant for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.

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