School Mental Health Project

About the Value of Student
and Learning Supports


In New York’s small schools of choice (SSCs), principals and teachers reported three factors as most responsible for success. (1) Personalized Learning Environments, (2) Academic Expectations, and (3) Teachers. Two other features that were intended to buttress effectiveness were a thematic focus and a supporting network, but these were reported as relatively less important to the success of these schools.

Noted in a 2014 report entitled: Inside Success: Strategies of 25 Effective Small High Schools in NYC. (by A. Villavicencio & W.H. Marinell)

Some readers may be tempted to read the negative findings in this report about the supporting network as suggesting that student and learning supports are not valuable.

Not so!

These findings have to do with the set of networks of external support “partners” that have been established for New York City schools. Schools can choose which support network they want as an aid in meeting their “instructional and operational needs while ensuring that schools can reach their accountability targets." (See .)

With specific respect to these external support networks, the report states that “effective SSCs had a variety of external partners, but didn't see them as essential to their success” and there was “a general lack of enthusiasm about external partners relative to the emphasis placed on other success factors.”

In explaining this the report’s authors suggest two related interpretations. “First, external partners are not a substitute for school-based staff, such as the social workers and guidance counselors who SSC educators said were central to creating effective personalized learning environments. Second, for external partners to make a difference, it is important that they be well integrated into the school community and address a compelling need that school staff aren't able to address on their own. When SSC partners were loosely related to the school's theme, for example, interviewees didn't find them especially useful. But when they helped provide a targeted service, especially around fostering student engagement and well-being, respondents were more likely to describe the partners as contributing to their effectiveness.”

Reading on in the report, one finds ample support for the importance of student and learning supports. Here is what is stated:

While teachers were the core of the staff at these SSCs, respondents also highlighted the importance of having an adequate number of highly skilled support staff, particularly guidance counselors and social workers. This is not surprising, given the emphasis educators placed on supporting students' social and emotional well-being and helping students resolve personal matters that lie outside of school (but affect their performance in school).

Illustrating the importance of guidance counselors to the work of his school, the principal at Fleetwood North asserted, "I believe in guidance interventions more than anything else." The principals of Valley and Channel Bay concurred, with the latter noting that her school's students and their families had substantial social needs and that the guidance program was "very instrumental" in providing students with adequate support. The assistant principal at Plainview described how the principal had placed a high priority on hiring a social worker, and made the unorthodox but important decision to have the social worker serve not just high-need students, as is typical in many schools, but the entire student population. The assistant principal said this decision-and the social worker's skills-were the reasons that students' social and emotional needs were so well met and why the school had such strong, supportive relationships with its students' parents....

The report also stresses the importance of directly dealing with interfering factors:

Addressing Barriers to Student Success – Closely monitoring students' progress may help schools identify struggling students, but it doesn't dictate whether and how schools respond to those needs. Respondents stressed that addressing the larger family and community challenges that students faced outside of school-safety concerns, health problems, hunger, transience, to name a few-was essential to the success of personalized environments. The principal of Fleetwood North had seen so many examples of the academic benefits of attending to students' non-academic needs that he had concluded that "guidance interventions"-his term for interventions that addresses students' personal or family matters-facilitated students' success more than any other strategy that the school employed....

So don’t be confused.

This report found that school-based student and learning supports were an important facet of school success. The problem these small schools face related to such supports is the same as that confronting all schools – how best to organize and use the sparse resources available in order to equitably address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students.

We look forward to receiving your comments about this topic.

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