Public Education: A More Holistic Approach

Public Education: A More Holistic Approach

by Dan Cardinali

Austin, Texas is home to a thriving tech community and a vibrant music scene, both of which can mask an undercurrent of real need. On a recent visit to Communities In Schools of Austin, I spoke with Suki Steinhauser, the executive director, and Sara Stone, senior program coordinator — and was struck by an important insight these two seasoned and well-trained practitioners shared with me. Through their work providing integrated student services to more than 6,000 students in 55 K-12 schools in Austin, they’ve concluded that nearly one in four students brings serious trauma to school every day.

Put another way, one in four school buses pulling up to the school each day is effectively an ambulance delivering kids in need of emergency care.

Suki’s “kids,” as she refers to them, routinely face extraordinary daily challenges: they come to school hungry and depend on school as the backbone of their daily nutrition; they confront serious neighborhood violence and depend on school for their physical and emotional safety; many have witnessed their parents or siblings being incarcerated and depend on caring adults at school to serve as proxy parents; and an increasing number shuttle between homes of relatives and/or friends to sleep at night and depend on school for a shower and clean clothes.

She makes a simple and irrefutable point: unless you can work with students to address and overcome these traumas, then they are fundamentally compromised as learners and fundamentally barred from realizing the “American Dream.”

Suki and Sara went on to point out that the collaboration between schools and Communities In Schools have converted schools to “home environments” that anchor students, nurturing them academically, physically, socially and emotionally. My colleague in the education reform field, Alex Johnston, calls these seriously challenged young people “school dependent youth.”

As increasing numbers of families slip from solid middle class existence to working poor — with all the unfortunate consequences this brings into a child’s life — the numbers of “school dependent youth” will continue to grow.

This shift raises two fundamental public policy questions:

1) What is the role of public education in America?

2) What set of resources are required for public education to successfully fulfill its role?

Few would argue that public education is this nation’s human capital strategy to remain an economic and political leader in the world. When successful, public education fully prepares citizens to participate in society by working and contributing to their communities. Education helps people achieve a stable middle class existence with the option of upward class mobility. While certainly not uniformly successful for all Americans, the collective effort of public education over the last hundred years ensured our leadership in the world.

We live, however, in an era of deepening anxiety about how effectively our K-12 public education institutions are preparing our future citizenry — particularly as we look to a quickly changing political and economic landscape. A healthy response to this anxiety has been unprecedented work in developing, implementing and evaluating various education reform initiatives in an attempt to programmatically and structurally improve K-12 education. Despite vigorous debate in the field, we live in very hopeful times that public education will continue to realize its role in America.

It is with this hope, then, that I turn to our second question. With 22 % of the nation’s children now living in poverty and a persistently high unemployment rate, public education must reframe how it educates students to realize its purpose. If my colleagues are right and a high percentage of students are arriving to school traumatized and in serious need of fundamental resources; if millions of young people increasingly are dependent on schools to get many of their basic needs met; if mounting research points to the critical role of public education in building both cognitive and noncognitive capacities in order for students to successfully graduate and succeed in post-secondary endeavors; then we must shift how and what kinds of resources we provide to students to take into account a more holistic set of criteria, beyond mere academic supports.

Many of us in the field of student support service have known this as practitioners. We’ve also known that communities like Austin have tremendous reservoirs of good will, commitment and resources that can be tapped to provide the physical, social and emotional supports that students require. We need to recognize that the role of schools has changed, and then step up to addressing the traumas that confront young people so that every child has a chance to learn, graduate and succeed.