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Guide Promotes 'Personal Opportunity Plans' as Route to Educational Equity

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4cs.JPGA group of national educational organizations released a guide Tuesday that is designed to encourage school board members to leverage community partnerships to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of individual students. The guide emphasizes better coordination between schools, faith-based groups, community organizations, and charities to end overlapping programs and better face challenges that can impede academic progress.

The central strategy of the new guide is the creation of a "personal opportunity plan" that will outline how schools and organizations can provide the support and enrichment necessary to help every student, regardless of out-of-school factors like family income or stresses related to poverty. 

The guide, "Partnerships, Not Pushouts: A Guide for School Board Members on Community Partnerships for Student Success," was developed by:  the Alliance for Excellent Education; the American Federation of Teachers;  the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning; the Coalition for Community Schools, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, Opportunity Action, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and the Rural School and Community Trust. According to the guide:

"Schools, families and communities must work together to meet the needs of our children. Each entity shares common goals related to the educational, physical health, and social and emotional well-being of children and youth within the classroom and community. School-community partnerships can weave together critical resources and enhance strategies that students and their families can use to promote success in school and beyond. Community schools offer a multifaceted strategy for delivering Personal Opportunity Plans to students."

Federal data show that poor and minority students don't always have access to the same educational opportunities as their peers, that they are often disciplined at higher rates, and that their families frequently lack resources to help them thrive. Districts can help bridge those gaps by building on the community schools model, the guide's authors said. The guide suggests every school appoint a full-time coordinator to help school staff, teachers, and parents meet to create plans for individual students, evaluate progress, and assess new needs as they emerge. Under the model, "personal opportunity plans" would function much like the individualized education plans schools currently make for special education students, but they would integrate more community supports.

Higher-income families often do this sort of work without realizing it, Martin Blank, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. For example, a mother may see that her son is struggling with speech and take him to a therapist, or she may take him to visit a natural history museum to encourage his love of dinosaurs and make him feel  more engaged with science lessons in the classroom.

Under a "personal opportunity plan," a teacher make work with a student's parents to connect him to a charitable organization that can assess his vision and fit him for glasses, or they may remedy the problem of frequent tardiness by working with a social services organization that can help address family problems that make the student late to school, representatives from the organizations said. Other needs that could be addressed through such plans could be lack of adequate winter clothing or an interest in technology can't be met when a student doesn't have a computer at home, they said.

And the model's benefits apply to all students, not just low-income children, the report says. The model can help teachers find service learning opportunities in the community that make their classroom lessons seem more relevant and stimulating. 

"When we talk about success for a student, we really do have to think about the whole child, not just the academics," said Dennis Van Roekel, the president of the National Education Association.

To ensure the most effective partnerships and school programs possible, the guide includes questions school board members should ask that center on "the four Cs"—community, climate, cohesion, and capacity. It also provides examples of schools around the country that have taken creative approaches to community partnerships. An example of some of those questions:

  • Capacity: "Does the district have policies that encourage or promote community partnerships? If so, how can those policies be strengthened to ensure that the emotional, social, and academic needs of all students are being met?"
  • Climate: "How do our district's data collection and accountability measures demonstrate the impact of efforts to promote social, emotional, civic and academic learning? Do they demonstrate the impact of schoolwide efforts to promote safety, connectedness, and engagement?"
  • Community: "What is the district protocol for partnering with community-based organizations, local government agencies and other entities in addressing the academic, social, emotional, and physical needs of the students and their families? Does the district have a system in place to determine the effectiveness of these partnerships?"
  • Cohesion: "What system does the district have in place to ensure that the coordination of the services provided by outside partners are not fragmented from early education until students enter the postsecondary system? What mechanisms are in place to ensure regular and appropriate communication between partners?"

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