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School leaders must recognize that many students need support--and teachers and guardians are looking for help as they advocate for students.

4 ways districts can better advocate for students

School leaders must recognize that there are students who need support--and teachers and guardians looking for help as they advocate for students

Public education remains the nation’s great equalizer, giving every child the best chance for success in life. A chance that can turn into an assurance if school districts provide a solid foundation at every step in a student’s path toward graduation and beyond. Unfortunately, too many children right now are standing on shaky ground.

As the superintendent of Meriden Public Schools (MPS) in Meriden, Conn., I can tell you not one of our 8,500 children emerged from the pandemic completely unscathed. The academic and emotional fallout took its toll on everyone. However, it’s been especially hard on students who need extra support, including English learners, students in special education programs, and those who have been disenfranchised from or disengaged with education in general.

Over the years, MPS has developed strategies to help our administrators, teachers, and staff become stronger advocates for their students and to more effectively engage community partners and families. Our goal is to ensure education works for every child, regardless of their circumstances.

1. Start with student data, focus on the child. At the MPS central office, we review attendance, discipline, and referral data as well as Getting to Know You surveys to identify students performing below proficiency, at risk for behavior issues, or over-aged and under-credited. From there, we send indicators to the educators with boots on the ground, helping teachers and instructional coaches build one-on-one relationships with students to address their specific education needs, provide assistance through academic accommodations, and guide them on the right path toward graduation and eventually college or trade school or competitive employment.  

Just as important as it is to prevent struggling students from slipping through the cracks is to support those with greater potential.  School-based mentors who understand their students’ goals can recommend AP classes or dual-credit courses that provide the challenges they need while preparing them for the next step in their education.

Educators and administrators have to understand not every child has the luxury of an advocate at home. For many of those who do, their caretakers want to do more, but may not be aware of the options available or are burdened with challenges of their own. We need to be there for students who don’t have anyone saying, ”What reading interventions are available for my child?” or “My child should be in a higher math class.”

2. Support the teachers who are supporting your students. Educators strive to ask our children the right questions to determine if they’re struggling with their mental, emotional, and physical health so they can be connected to services.  Many of us ask similar questions of teachers who hide their own stressors to care for their students.

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Based on feedback from our teachers, MPS introduced a variety of programs to help them personally and professionally. We partner with organizations that allow educators to go on learning excursions that enrich their teaching. We introduced the OTIS for Educators platform so teachers can take virtual professional development courses and earn certifications on their own time schedules. And we worked with our insurance company to broaden the wellness services we provide, including Pilates, yoga, and individualized therapy.

3. Build mutually-beneficial community partnerships. Public schools are being asked to do more with fewer resources. Yet, we’re still hesitant to bring in help from outside organizations and businesses. As administrators, we can’t complain that our educators are being asked to do everything and then close our doors on potential partners who can help us expand our services or provide funding that would help us improve student outcomes.

Like many districts, MPS provides health and dental clinics, but we take healthcare a step further by welcoming the Community Health Center of Meriden into our schools so students have access to providers beyond the social workers and psychologists we have on staff. Instead of relying on crisis intervention teams to support students, we’re working to avoid the crisis altogether by bringing experts to the table earlier.

Partnerships also allow us to build on the learning opportunities we offer. To prevent the summer slide and provide structure and routine, we offer an academic-focused program for 2,000 students every morning at our schools before bussing them to an afternoon camp hosted by one of our partners, such as MeridenYMCA, Boys and Girls Club, or Girls Inc.  In addition, we’ve successfully redesigned our special education program to include partners that provide resources we can’t, such as swimming classes designed specifically for children with autism or communication disorders.

One of the easiest ways we’ve found to develop partnerships is by welcoming agencies and grant foundations to a community breakfast or dinner each year where we can highlight our shared goals for our kids and set the foundation for future conversations on how we can work together. 

4. Strengthen relationships with the family, not just the student. For years, there’s been a disconnect between schools and guardians because we’ve failed to meet families where they are. If caretakers are juggling three jobs just to put food on the table and the only time we reach out is when their child is struggling, they no longer feel valued, and any trust they had in us is lost.

Since the pandemic hit, MPS revamped our outreach efforts – and as a result, family engagement has skyrocketed. For example, to ensure we’re providing the resources our students and their families need, the MPS Family Liaison Team scheduled home visits over the summer. In addition, we personally invite families to events throughout the year, such as band concerts or student-led projects,  building a true school community.

One benefit of the COVID-19 shutdown was the chance to overhaul our parent communication system. Prior to the pandemic, attendance for in-person parent-teacher conferences had slipped significantly. However, once we went virtual, we saw a significant increase in participation – parents no longer had to take unpaid leave from work to attend or find transportation to and from school when they could schedule a 15-minute virtual meeting. 

School officials need to recognize that there are not only students who need us, but teachers and guardians looking to us for help in championing the children they care for. Even with limited resources, we must take a holistic, collaborative approach to education to lift every child up, to  elevate their learning experience, and ensure that public education remains the great equalizer. 

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