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Student achievement begins with the family

A superintendent explains how his district focuses on families and community coalitions to support student success

At Wichita Falls Independent School District in Texas, we believe every student deserves to begin their academic career at the same starting line. It’s an issue of fairness and equity, certainly, but it’s also a practical matter. When students fall behind in the earliest years of their education, around ages 5–7, it becomes much more difficult to bring them to grade-level reading as they grow. Simply put, the biggest bang for our buck in developing strong students across grade levels comes from starting early and making sure they have a solid foundation.

Related: Can technology help teach literacy in poor communities?

The students who need the most help, however, often face a slew of other challenges in their lives, from unstable home environments to poverty and hunger and other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). We’ve found that committing to focus on school readiness, partnering with community organizations, and looking to technology for an assist when needed, can go a long way toward helping provide students with the right tools to succeed.

Find your focus

At the heart of our student readiness success is focus. It’s that simple. We decided to make early learning a priority and the rest followed from that.

In practice, that means we hired a director of early learning, Dr. Travis Armstrong. He concentrates exclusively on students who are not yet in school through those in kindergarten. We have an early learning specialist and a curriculum specialist who are both working in that area coaching teachers. We also have three dedicated Head Start campuses, a pre-K campus, and Head Start or pre-K programs running at 13 other campuses.

As part of our Parents as Teachers program, we have a director and six full-time teachers who go into kids’ homes once a week beginning at about age two. They help parents learn to become their child’s first teacher so they are in a better position to prepare them for school. This work is possible in part through a grant from the Texas Home Visiting Program that we received from our partnership with the North Texas Area United Way that focuses on children who are not already enrolled in a Head Start or pre-K program.

This leaves us with approximately 100 learners who aren’t receiving quality educational opportunities, whether that’s because of a lack of transportation, childcare arrangements, or some other reason. For those children, we offer a blended learning solution called Waterford UPSTART, which provides an online kindergarten readiness curriculum.

Families who can’t afford it are provided a free laptop and Internet connectivity. Children spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week working on kindergarten readiness. Dr. Armstrong says that, in all of his years in education, this is the first time he hasn’t had to turn any families away from school-readiness opportunities due to a lack of resources. Waterford UPSTART has really helped us to close that gap.

Support your families

We’ve also found that it’s important to address the areas of young learners’ lives that schools are traditionally less involved in. Again, the children who need the most help to reach the starting line often face other obstacles that interfere with their early learning. “Poverty directly affects academic achievement due to the lack of resources available for student success,” according to research published by Educational Research and Reviews. “Low achievement is closely correlated with lack of resources, and numerous studies have documented the correlation between low socioeconomic status and low achievement.” There is a direct correlation between struggling families and their students’ readiness to learn and, later, their on-grade reading.

To help mitigate that, we provide meals. This summer, for example, we fed more than 25,000 meals to children under the age of 18. Most of them were probably under the age of 10. We also help parents get transportation to job interviews and find daycare, and otherwise connect parents to resources and services through our social workers.

If we’re going to give kids the best opportunity to succeed, we have to do whatever we can to help our struggling families.

Related: 7 ways to rethink school/family partnerships

Tap your community

As important as those kinds of wraparound services are, they can be a real challenge because they are not part of a school district’s traditional mission. Making it work is all about partnerships.

We partner with our local food bank to get those kids fed. We have partnered with our Community Health Clinic and are currently building a full-service medical and dental clinic on one of our elementary campuses. In addition to the Parents as Teachers program, we partner with United Way on an early-childhood coalition. We work closely with after-school providers, such as the Boys and Girls Club, Campfire, and the YMCA, as well as out-of-district childcare and preschool providers. Additionally, we have several local foundations that have helped us with the extra resources needed to tackle the toxic stress families experience.

We’ve had three summits so far to bring together our social service and early-learning providers to focus on ACEs, which include things such as poverty, medical or dental neglect, inadequate supervision, and educational neglect. A foundational study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente found a correlation between the number of ACEs a child experiences and all kinds of negative outcomes, including alcohol and drug abuse, risk for intimate partner violence, fetal death, ischemic heart disease, and more.

It’s imperative that we do our best to connect our families to services that are going to help them, even if it simply reduces stress. By building a community of support around our children even before they become our students, we give them a start that they might not have otherwise had.

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