Mapping the Way Forward for the Student Support Movement

As I noted last week, these are exciting times for the advocates of educational equality. After many years of skepticism, controversy and relative obscurity, Integrated Student Supports (ISS) are finally gaining traction as a must-have component of public education. As evidenced by the recent White House summit in Los Angeles, policymakers have awakened to the fact that persistent poverty represents a structural barrier to learning -- a barrier that is best overcome when schools focus on meeting the needs of the whole child.

Proponents of ISS have worked long and hard to win a place at the table of education policy, and it's important that we press our advantage in order to solve a pressing need. More than 1.5 million students across the U.S. are currently receiving an evidence-based model of integrated supports at school, and that number has given us the critical mass that we need in terms of visibility and evidence. It's amazing to think that ISS is creating a brighter future for 1.5 million kids, but take a moment to put that number in context: According to our research, there are 50 million K-12 students who would benefit from ISS, and for 11 million of those kids, the need is critical.

At last month's White House summit, participants spent the better part of a day attempting to map a strategy for delivering integrated supports to millions of additional students. Cross-functional working groups composed of educators, philanthropists, academics and policymakers made a compelling case for moving forward on five different priorities simultaneously:

  1. Expanding the evidence and building on the research
  2. Stimulating awareness and demand in local communities
  3. Increasing national awareness
  4. Building the skills of ISS providers
  5. Designing strategies for achieving scale

If that looks like an ambitious agenda in outline form, I can only say that it looks absolutely overwhelming when you begin to consider all the tactics needed for implementation. Some might argue that these goals are too aggressive, and the ISS movement should focus on the more immediate "small wins" that can move us forward by steps, rather than by leaps and bounds.

While I can appreciate the difference in strategy, I believe the full-bore approach is the best way to harness and leverage our current momentum. Although interrelated, each of the five elements is a separate body of work with a distinct set of stakeholders -- educators, researchers, parents, social service providers, social entrepreneurs, the faith-based community, local and state education leaders, and school board members, to name just a few. The more we can mobilize these stakeholders in planning, developing and implementing a given body of work, the stronger our movement becomes. Furthermore, the very process of tackling all five at once will help bring together the widest variety of stakeholders in a co-learning or co-creating role. In other words, this collaborative approach should help reframe a more holistic notion of "educating" a child while expanding accountability beyond schools to the community.

None of this will be easy or quick, of course. All of us involved in the ISS movement will have some heavy lifting to do, and some deep thinking as well. Having built our individual and organizational identities on a particular approach to the integration of school-based student supports, the challenge of truly co-creating is huge. Individual and organizational egos are at stake: We'll have to admit that no one has it 100 percent figured out, and that we all have important contributions to make. School leadership at the local, state, and national level is essential, but not sufficient. The same is true for local, state, and national health and human service providers, youth development experts and practitioners, etc.

When will it all pay off? I believe we'll begin to see some return on investment almost immediately. Public awareness, for instance, tends to grow geometrically rather than arithmetically, so we could see relatively quick gains in local and national support. But I don't want to be naïve: Full national integration of student supports into public education is bound to be a long-term play. Our experience with other movements such as mentoring or after school programs shows that the work is constantly evolving, and it takes time to build both content expertise and efficiencies. Student supports can expect a similar growth trajectory, but because ISS is a process rather than a program, it may be more quickly picked up by public education and collectively owned by community stakeholders.

Daunting, expensive, tiring, time-consuming -- those are just a few of the words that might describe the path forward. But remember, we don't have to do it all by ourselves. Now that ISS is a part of the national conversation, we can build new coalitions and leverage new resources. Every stakeholder we bring into the process adds new talent and energy and perspective to the movement. That's the beauty of co-creation.

Will all of the hard work be worth it in the end? If you talked to the families of the 1.5 million students receiving ISS today, you would get a resounding "yes" -- and for every new student that we add, that chorus of support will only grow louder. For every kid who stays in school and succeeds in life as a result of integrated supports, we have another potential stakeholder in the ISS movement.