As the last bell rings on the school year, principals and district leaders are in the midst of collecting summative data and celebrating academic achievement and growth. However, it is likely that some students who come from environments of dysfunction and trauma will lag behind their more affluent and supported peers. In fact, the Scholastic Teacher & Principal School Report found that of the educators surveyed, 87% said that they have students who face barriers to learning that come from outside the school environment, and these barriers to learning are even more prevalent in high-poverty schools.
As school leaders approach improvement planning for the upcoming year, what strategies can be employed to address the pervasive barriers that many students face?
A new approach to School Improvement Planning has emerged that addresses the challenges that some students have toward accessing instruction and demonstrating achievement. Based on the foundational work of Dr. Howard Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Learning Supports Pathway approaches how one looks at school improvement in a wholly different way.
Learning Supports Pathway
Drs. Adelman and Taylor explain that students who are “motivated, engaged, and able to learn” respond to good instruction in a well-managed school by demonstrating growth and achievement. However, some students experience minor or major challenges in their lives that prevent them from benefiting from instruction. These barriers to learning take many forms, such as social-emotional or behavioral challenges, as well as factors related to poverty, lack of family support, school climate, safety, substance abuse, mental health, community issues and attendance. Adelman and Taylor found that good instruction alone is not enough to address these challenges. They assert that traditional school improvement models focus on two components of improvement: instruction and management. Therefore, what is missing from our current models is planning for learning supports along with instruction and management. By including learning supports as a third component in planning and implementation, school leaders can address the factors that keep children from learning.
The Learning Support Pathway offers a way to organize and deliver the supports—resources, strategies, practices, and policy—in an aligned and systemic manner. This includes family and community engagement and partnerships that are leveraged with the school to boost engagement and academic improvement.
As a district school superintendent who led the use of the Learning Supports Pathway in school improvement, I found the approach to be the first opportunity for us to collectively and collaboratively address the challenges our students faced outside of school that resulted in low achievement. Dr. Rhonda Waltman, our Learning Supports Coach, first led us in a resource-mapping activity to “take stock” of the programs and initiatives offered by our schools and the district office. We were surprised to find redundancies as well as gaps in our services. Furthermore, we found that the people who worked in support areas, like counselors and social workers, rarely met together to discuss how to prevent problems that children and families face.
Through the guidance of our coach, we re-structured our meetings and work groups to include three working teams: Instruction, Learning Supports, and Management. The leader from each team served on the Superintendent’s Cabinet. From there, we applied a systemic approach: we first examined our data, then clarified our areas of need, and finally identified the root cause of the underperformance. Then, the Instructional Team worked with the Learning Supports team to collaboratively identify strategies to address the barriers to learning. The Management Team then made decisions to set up structures to ensure that the strategies were carried out effectively.
This change in our organizational process unified our work, shifted our response to prevention and intervention, and resulted in improved engagement as well as achievement. We began to see the impact as attendance improved, discipline referrals declined, and families connected with our schools in a way that supported their children’s learning.
For all students to have the opportunity to succeed, the Learning Supports Pathway approach to school improvement offers a way. It has the power to turn hopelessness into possibility and positively impact the lives of children who need us the most.
This post is the first in a series on integrated learning supports exploring how districts and schools can support students who face barriers to learning.