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Students can come to school with a lot of baggage. They may be feeling the stress of financial pressure at home. They may be dealing with a death or illness in their family. But as school counselor Barbara Micucci puts it, “Ultimately it does not matter the issues that kids bring to school. Schools are charged with educating the kids.”

This is where she and other counselors come in. We recently spoke with Micucci about the counseling profession—why it is important, how it has changed over the years and the challenges it faces. She also told us about her own work and some of the strategies that led her to be named the 2010 School Counselor of the Year by Naviance and the American School Counselor Association. Key to her success: visibility, and a desire to engage parents as partners in the educational process.

Micucci has been a counselor for over 20 years and is currently working at Caley Elementary School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. She was selected from a field of extraordinary school counselors across the country and plans to use her new role to call for strategies to ensure that every elementary school across the United States has a school counselor.

Why Have School Counselors?

Public School Insights: Let’s start with a very general question. Why is it important for schools to have counselors?

Micucci: It is so important for a number of reasons. I think kids today are under a lot more stress and family pressure than they have been in the past. There are many reasons. Families themselves are very stressed. A lot of it comes from economic conditions. And aside from that, when I think of my school—and I am in a middle-class school in a suburban district—there are a lot of families where parents are divorced. There are single parent families. There are parents who have adopted children. I have a couple families where there's terminal illness. More families are coming with limited English proficiency. There are families living with other families because of ...

About two weeks ago, we posted a conversation with two leaders from Boston's City Connects (CCNX) program, which is working with 11 schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services in the community." The approach has helped raise grades and test scores for the mostly low income children in these schools.

We recently spoke with people in two CCNX schools. Traci Walker Griffith is principal at the Eliot K-8 School, and Kathleen Carlisle is the CCNX site coordinator at the Mission Hill School. Each has an insider's view of this remarkable program at work.

Public School Insights: How has City Connects worked in your school? What changes have been made since it began?

Traci Walker Griffith: A number of changes have occurred at the Eliot School. I came in as principal in March of 2007. In May of 2007 the school was identified as one that would take on City Connects.

We were fortunate because the mission and vision of the Eliot School aligned with City Connects in that we are serving the whole child--academically, socially, emotionally. So we have worked amazingly well together in identifying students’ academic and social/emotional needs. And as we began the program I found that the structures and systems that it offers—whole class review, individual student review, and providing a school site coordinator to maintain and sustain partnerships—really aligned with what we wanted to start at the Eliot School at the time.

Kathleen Carlisle: I would echo many of the things that Traci just said. The whole child philosophy especially stands out in my mind—that is a City Connects and also a Mission Hill philosophy. And I think that the presence of City Connects in Mission Hill has especially impacted the identification of student needs and ways to meet those needs, be they social/emotional, academic, health or family. I think there has been greater connection between supports and needs, and also consistent follow-up.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense of the results of the City Connects work in your respective schools?

Traci Walker Griffith: When I came on at the Eliot, a school identified as underperforming and in correction, all of the pieces we needed to put in place to increase student achievement were aligned with what City Connects was working on: identifying services and enrichment opportunities for students both inside and outside the school; working with community agencies that in the past had difficulty working ...

Another study of charter schools has dealt a big blow to the most die-hard supporters of the free market in schooling. It seems a charter school's popularity is no guarantee of its success. The invisible hand will not deliver better results.

The Department of Education just released the new study (PDF), which focuses on charters at the middle school level. The study examines schools that had more applicants than they could accommodate and compares students who were randomly selected to attend those schools with those who were not. It concludes that, on average, the schools "are neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior and school progress."

Charters, it seems, helped some students but hurt others. Like other studies before it, this report supports a far more cautious charter strategy than we're hearing from politicians and pundits these days. Here are some of the big lessons I drew from the study:

Even the Most Popular Charters Did Not Outshine Traditional Public Schools
First, let's not forget that this study did not review a representative sample of charter schools. It examined the small share of charters that had many more applicants than they could take. These are the charter schools parents are most likely to choose, so we would expect them to be the high fliers.

And that's a pretty select group. Of the almost 500 charters that had been been around long enough to meet the study's criteria, only 36 made the final cut. Some declined to participate, but the vast majority were not sufficiently oversubscribed to take part in the study. Would the less popular charter schools--or those that ...

An innovative program out of Boston College is making a big difference for children in 11 Boston elementary schools. City Connects (CCNX) works with the schools to link each child to a "tailored set of intervention, prevention and enrichment services located in the community."

Its efforts have gone a good distance towards closing achievement gaps between the low-income children in the program and children who meet state averages. CCNX's results offer powerful support for what should be common sense: When we address the challenges poor students face both within and beyond schools, they flourish.

A rigorous study (PDF) of the program's outcomes tells a pretty stunning story:

  • The beneficial impact of BCNX [the former name of CCNX] on student growth in academic achievement (across grades 1 to 5) was, on average, approximately three times the harmful impact of poverty.
  • By the end of grade 5, achievement differences between BCNX and comparison students indicated that the BCNX intervention moves students at the 50th percentile up to or near the 75th percentile, and the students at the 25th percentile up to or near the 50th.
  • For multiple outcomes, the treatment effects were largest for students at greatest risk for academic failure. For example, English language learners experienced the largest treatment benefits on literacy outcomes, by third grade demonstrating similar report card scores to those proficient in English in comparison schools. In fact,as a result of BCNX, there was no longer an achievement gap between these students.
  • After grade 5, the lasting positive effects ofthe BCNX intervention can be seen in middle-school MCAS scores. The size ofthe positive effect of BCNX ranged from approximately 50% to 130% as large as the negative effects of poverty on these scores.1

We recently caught up with two of the program's leaders: Dr. Mary Walsh, its Executive Director, and Patrice DiNatale, its Director of Practice.

Public School Insights: What is City Connects?

Walsh: City Connects is a systemic, evidence-based approach to school-based student support. It involves assessing, in conversation with teachers and other school staff, each child in the school at the beginning of the school year and then developing a tailored student support plan based on that student's strengths and needs in four areas: academic, social emotional/behavioral, health and family.

That support plan involves accessing services, supports, resources and enrichment for the child, both school-based resources as well as, and importantly, community resources. A trained professional with a Master’s degree—either ...

A private school in New Jersey is running ads that subtly point to the effects of budget cuts on public schools. People in the public school system are, of course, getting a bit hot under the collar.

I can understand why. Recent budget cuts and ten years of school reform rhetoric have made it all the easier for private schools to portray themselves as the anti-public schools. "Public" is hardly a selling point for many wealthy parents.

The story from New Jersey describes only one school, but it gives us a whiff of something larger. If we're not careful, we'll portray public schools as the schools of desperate measures. I've seen it happen in the communities where I've lived.

Even before the budget cuts, public schools suffered from the perception that they were test prep factories. All the talk of shrinking curricula, endangered recess and constant tests of basic skills has hardly drawn in more wealthy parents.

NCLB boosters and detractors may have been complicit in harming the public school brand. The more alarm bells you sound about schools--or what's being done to them--the less appealing they can become. It can seem like a Catch 22.

The budget cuts may also drag down the brand. News of growing class sizes ...

[Editor's note: This is the second in a series of three posts on school-based health centers. Yesterday we briefly reviewed evidence supporting the use of these clinics. Today, Linda Gann talks about how her district founded two such centers. Soon Jennifer Danielson will take us through a day in the life of a nurse practitioner and tell us how her school-based health center has impacted kids.]

School-based health clinics have shown a great deal of promise in improving health outcomes for students, decreasing Medicaid costs at a time when every penny counts and even in potentially raising academic outcomes for low-income students. But yet there are only about 2,000 school-based health clinics (SBHCs) in the United States. Why don’t more districts take this approach? Does it seem too expensive? Too risky? Too separate from the district’s academic mission?

We recently spoke to Linda Gann, Communications and Special Project Coordinator in Colorado’s Montrose County School District RE-1J, to learn more about how her district came to embrace SBHCs. She also told us about her experience planning and implementing the district’s first school-based health clinic three years ago and its second a few months ago. Some keys to their success? The clinics get all their funding outside the general fund. They keep the community engaged in and informed about these efforts. And they consider not only the physical but also the mental health needs of students.

SBHCs alone will not close the achievement gap. But in Montrose, they are part of a broad strategy to address the needs of its growing Hispanic community. And that strategy appears to be working—for example, the district has a 20% higher graduation rate for Hispanic students than the state does.

Here's the story as Gann told it to us in a recent phone conversation.

About Montrose County School District RE-1J

I think from a researcher’s standpoint our district is almost a perfect universe, as far as data analysis goes. We are located in west central Colorado. We are five hours away from Denver. We are about 1,100 square miles, with two distinct communities. Montrose is about 30,000 people. Olathe is probably about 8,000 people. So we are not very large. And we are separated from our neighboring districts by open space, so it is really easy to tell where our school district stops and another one starts.

In our district, we have 6,500 students. District-wide, 54% receive a free or reduced price lunch. But on the south end of our district, which is close to the ski resort of Telluride, the houses are larger, and there are more families considered upper middle class.  The free and reduced price lunch population at the elementary school in that area is about 11%. On the north end of our district, the free and reduced price lunch population is 80%. ...

It has long been suggested that health disparities between low-income kids and their peers contribute to the academic achievement gap. If you are looking for evidence to support that theory, a recent research review by Charles E. Basch—Healthier Students are Better Learners: A Missing Link in School Reforms to Close the Achievement Gap—offers it.

Long story short (and it is a long report), Basch describes the evidence showing how groups of children differ in the incidence of (and access to care for) each of seven “educationally relevant health disparities”: vision, asthma, teen pregnancy, aggression and violence, physical activity, breakfast, and inattention and hyperactivity. He also reviews evidence on the “causal pathways affecting educational outcomes” (I think that means he shows that not only are there disparities, but that these disparities actually do affect achievement).

One brief, and extremely simplified, example: Children with asthma sleep less. Children who sleep less tend to have worse academic performance than those who sleep more, because sleep influences cognitive function. Low-income children, for a variety of reasons, have asthma at higher rates than middle- and upper-income children. So even assuming ...

The dream of college for all is one of the first casualties when jobs dry up and the future looks bleak. More and more people are questioning the wisdom of paying big tuition for what could be a small return. Technical school may be a better bet, they say, especially for poor youth who can't afford to get into debt.

They may have a point. But I think it's a very bad idea to retreat from our commitment to get many, many more poor students through college. At the same time, it's unwise to assume that education alone will solve our economic woes.

The "college for all" argument is important, because it offers a vision for overcoming stubborn class inequities. Let's face it, the vast majority of wealthy parents expect their kids to go to college. Even some of those pundits who pooh pooh college in the pages of the Times or The Wall Street Journal would likely pitch a fit if their own children decided to go the voc-ed route. Poor children face a very different reality.

It may be true that college isn't for everyone. But until student inclination--and not income--becomes the major sorting mechanism for college, I'm not ready to abandon the focus on college. After all, those who never went to college are ...

We in education could learn a lot from the US military. That's the major message of the new State Education Standard. This remarkable issue of NASBE's quarterly magazine is well worth a read.

People in schools don't naturally look to the military for advice. When they hear "military," many think "rigid," "stern" or "traditional." A story in Wednesday's New York Times shows just how damaging such perceptions can be. It charts the decline of private military academies that long ago billed themselves as reform schools--hardly the best way to market private schools these days. The schools may have changed, but the reputation lingers.

The State Education Standard offers a very different view of what the military brings to the table. Many decidedly un-military educators will no doubt like what they see there. In some respects, there's nothing at all military about the military. Here's a brief sampling of ideas I took away from the magazine:

Nurture your talent. This passage from a story on leadership stopped me in my tracks: "Typically, officers spend between one-quarter and one-third of their time in schools, either as students or as instructors!" Yes, the military does a great deal to steer its best people into leadership tracks. But once leaders are in those tracks, they receive sustained, job-embedded staff development. It's ironic that the ...

I continue to be amazed by the fact that it has become taboo in some school reform circles to talk about strategies for clearing away non-academic barriers to student learning. Calls to address problems like hunger or poor health are often seen as excuses for poor schooling rather than as concrete strategies to improve the lot of children. This tendency strikes me as very counterproductive.

It's not the job of schools to ensure medical care and proper nutrition, we're told. It's not the job of schools to do what parents should be doing. Those are lovely sentiments. Many teachers and other school staff would probably agree that the job they thought they signed up for didn't involve finding health care for children, getting them warm clothing in the winter, or offering them breakfast when they're hungry.

But such expectations don't mean a whole lot when a child in your classroom can't concentrate because she has a tooth ache, can't see the board because she needs eye glasses, or is hungry because she went without breakfast. High-sounding talk about what a school's "mission" should or shouldn't be must ...

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