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Champion the Community’s Capacity

STRATEGY: Champion the community’s capacity to help students access resources beyond the school.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, community resources and local partnerships can support high-quality academic and enrichment opportunities by expanding the experiences offered to students and by leveraging access to local expertise. Better alignment and utilization of these resources can allow school systems to identify and access low-cost services or facilities to support students. Community resources such as health and human services agencies, departments of public safety and parks and recreation, community colleges, businesses, and community-based organizations serve to optimize opportunities for students and school systems. Students, especially low-income students, benefit from community supports—not just academic and career planning, but also health care, counseling, food, clothing, and school supplies.


As indicated by the University of Washington, top community referrals made by school systems for students and families include dental care, domestic violence shelters, family utility financial assistance and federal energy assistance, food support, housing, medical resources, parks and recreation, and public child care programs. Some examples of community resource programs for students and families across the country include Austin Partners in Education (Texas), Community Efforts, HandsOn Network, Locke Full Service Community Schools Collaborative (California), San Francisco Education Fund (California), and Success Mentors, among others.

Large urban school districts in New York City, Houston, Miami, Chicago, Charlotte, Nashville, and Oakland have implemented integrated student services (ISS) models in order to reach at-risk students and remove academic and nonacademic barriers to learning. According to a 2014 Child Trends research study, ISS is an approach to promoting students’ academic achievement and educational success through a patchwork of wraparound supports for the student, the family, and schools. In ISS programs, schools facilitate student access to additional academic supports such as tutoring, enrichment and motivational activities, college and career counseling as well as behavioral counseling, and fundamental needs such as health care, food, and clothing.

Strong community resource referral programs utilize systematic data collection and analysis. Boston College’s City Connects program created a student support information system that tracks classroom reviews, services that families and student receive, and student grades, attendance, and academic progress. As a result of this tracking, participating schools can run student-level reports to identify unmet needs. The national organization Communities In Schools also uses data and research trends to track student academic progress, grade promotion rates, and graduation rates. Based on data insights, they adjust staff training and enhance integrated support service programs.

City Connects refers students to partner organizations to provide needed services both in school and in the community. Based on these meetings with teachers, the principal, school nurse, and other staff, each student is assigned a personalized community support plan. The plan is based on their strengths and needs across academic, health, family, and social-emotional dimensions.

First Steps to Consider

One effective way to link students to community resources is by staffing a school-based coordinator. These coordinators conduct needs assessments of the school and its students and then plan and provide support in collaboration with community partner organizations, which can provide more specialized services not typically offered by schools. In the Communities In School ISS program, school-based support coordinators engage with school leaders and educators to provide a range of community support services for students. Schools should hire a school-based coordinator and provide the following wraparound services to the student population:

  • Arranging health checkups.
  • Planning career days.
  • Bringing in academic tutors.
  • Identifying the most at-risk students who need personal supports.
  • Providing ongoing case management with a 1:50 or 1:60 ratio each academic year.

Many of the school-based coordinators have graduate degrees in counseling or social work or nursing experience. School staff who engage with students and families in the program will often undergo training in trauma and trauma-informed care, social, emotional, and academic development, developmental relationships, and using data to inform practice. Research by the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College found that students who are involved with City Connects in elementary school experience half the high school dropout rate of the control group of students who do not participate in the program.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Sara Whitmer detailed a key challenge of engaging students with community resources: often, students have to initiate the resource independently in order to access its services. As she wrote, “Many students are too overwhelmed, too proud, or too entrenched in a culture of entitlement to put forth the kind of effort required to ameliorate their needs.” Additionally, “students who live in rural or otherwise underserved areas are often at an added disadvantage, as many community resources such as food pantries, plasma centers, and emergency shelters are restricted to the residents of certain postal codes, townships, or counties.”

Guiding Questions

  • What are the most pressing needs of students and families in your community?
  • How can your school effectively lower the ratio of students to staff in case management?
  • How can you encourage students to ask for help and normalize a culture of support?