How to Build an Integrated System of Student Support

Guest Commentary by Joan Wasser Gish

Joan Wasser Gish is Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support and author of a new report, Building Systems of Integrated Student Support: A Policy Brief for Local and State Leaders.

For many students, classroom instruction is not enough to ensure success in school. Hunger, homelessness, worry or sadness over a difficult family situation can interfere with a student’s readiness to learn. To create schools that fully support students and improve learning outcomes, , we need to break down barriers to learning by building a system—guided by proven practices—that harnesses the power of both school- and community-based resources.

Known as a system of integrated student support, it provides each student with a tailored set of  resources that can range from tutoring and mentoring, enrichment opportunities, and extracurricular activities, to linking students and families to a broader set of services, such as physical and mental health care, family counseling, food banks, or employment assistance.

A partnership between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, The Rennie Center, and the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College is offering an opportunity for district and school practitioners to develop their understanding of integrated student support and their ability to apply this approach in practice: the Systemic Student Support Academy (S3 Academy). The nine districts participating in the S3 Academy are building on existing structures, practices and programs in schools to develop systems that can promote students’ academic achievement and wellness by developing and coordinating supports that address students’ strengths and needs in order to help them surmount barriers to learning. By coming together as a community, participants are learning about evidence-based principles of effective practice, engaging in collaborative problem-solving, and developing implementation plans to create  to effective, equitable approaches for meeting the needs of students.

The nine Massachusetts districts participating in the S3 Academy are on the forefront of a growing national movement to more effectively integrate comprehensive resources for students. Across the country, policies designed to institutionalize effective student support practices are gaining momentum. At least eight states are advancing policies aimed at supporting effective practices for integrated student support.

Two recent reports are helping policymakers and practitioners realize more comprehensive and effective approaches to integrated student support. Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, where I work, in collaboration with the Center for Promise at Boston University, released Building Systems of Integrated Student Support: A Policy Brief for Local and State Leaders which seeks to guide decision makers to create systemic, scalable, effective, and cost-efficient systems of integrated student support.

Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab, released a report titled Success Plans: Promising Tools for Customizing Student Supports and Opportunities outlining both the importance and effectiveness of support plans customized to the strengths and needs of individual students.

Increasingly, both policymakers and practitioners are recognizing that, when well implemented, customized student support addresses barriers that impede a child’s academic development and future success. A child dealing with poor eyesight can never benefit from new and innovative programs designed to help them read until they get glasses; a child whose family is experiencing homelessness or hunger will find it difficult to concentrate on lessons in schools, no matter the quality of the instruction; and a child struggling with untreated anxiety, depression, or any number of mental health challenges will continue to struggle without the proper supports.

By providing schools with an effective way to connect the constellation of services available to their students through district learning networks like the S3 Academy and others, we hope to take one step closer to closing persistent achievement and opportunity gaps, so that all students can thrive.