Schools have become a flashpoint in the larger debate about how we balance living our lives and keeping ourselves safe during the time of COVID-19. Schools serve as crucial bridge between families, young people, and essential services and community resources. They are also increasingly sites of mental health care. In this episode of Into the Fold we hear from Tasha Moore, Chief Strategy Officer of Communities in Schools of North Texas, which specializes in dropout prevention, and Suki Steinhauser, CEO of Communities in Schools of Central Texas, who share some wisdom about keeping kids in school at a time when ‘school’ no longer means what it used to.
Defining ‘Dropout Prevention’
From the perspective of Communities in Schools (CIS), the term “dropout prevention” means more than just keeping kids in school. “How we approach dropout prevention is that we identify strengths and support systems that a child has and the obstacles that they have to being successful in school, and then we help them navigate their way to overcome the barriers in their path,” says Steinhauser. “Dropout prevention is really that combination of unleashing the capabilities that the student has and the resources they have, but also helping fill in the resources they may not have.”
“Students Still Need Us”
What does it mean for a program called “Communities in Schools” when students cannot be in school? This existential question was one that CIS had to grapple with when the pandemic hit. Realizing that they are an essential social service to students who still need support, even when they are not in a school building, CIS has had to adapt and learn to spread their services throughout the community. “The pandemic impacted our work because we weren’t able to be together with our students for many months,” explains Steinhauser. “But on the other hand, it helped us to connect with families more and helped us to be available to students regardless of the school schedule if there were crises happening.”
Supportive Relationships in Schools
Much of the work CIS does to foster the wellbeing of students is recognizing and building the important social relationships that kids normally form at school. For example, kids need to feel that they are safe and supported by teachers. “They need to feel that connection, to know that not only is that person going to physically keep me safe and I can trust them, but also they care that I do well in school, they care that I am successful,” says Moore. “That right now is so important and something we really have to emphasize because with the pandemic, we have been living in a fight or flight stage consistently for month.”
As adults, it can be challenging right now to de-stress, take a breath, and be that comforting person for kids. “In addition to the health and safety and the relationships, we want to be a place where a student can come in, breathe, decompress and know that everything doesn’t have to be about the pandemic and everything doesn’t have to be about school, they can have a moment to be a kid and have fun,” emphasizes Moore.
“We have our work cut out for us,” adds Steinhauser. “We need our kids in school because there are a lot of adults in the school building who keep an eye on students. These are the same adults who are going to notice behavioral changes that might indicate that something is not right at home. We need to have those connections, and it is really challenging to be able to pay attention to children’s mental and emotional and physical wellbeing when children are not in school.” Children are also more likely to experience loneliness, anxiety, and even clinical depression if they are isolated. “People of all ages thrive in community and that has been so incredibly disrupted,” says Steinhauser.
Schools Reopening, Students Reengaging
Though school districts across Texas have taken different approaches to schools reopening, with some sticking with virtual learning and others opting for hybrid approaches, an important theme during this time has been outreach and communication with student’s families. “We have seen some of our districts adjust their protocols and procedures two weeks into school because it wasn’t what was working best for students and their teachers,” says Moore. “That’s really encouraging to see our educational leadership in the area really listening and making adjustments for what’s best for kids.” Indeed, this has been something of an unseen benefit during this challenging time. “We have had reduced barriers to communicating with parents because we are not with students all day on campus,” explains Steinhauser. “We actually have more opportunity to communicate with parents. There’s just mountains of research that says when parents are fully engaged it has huge benefit to their child.” Even just calling families and checking in on them can make a huge impact. “Parents will tell us, ‘I didn’t think anybody cared about us’ and ‘I so appreciate your calling,’” says Steinhauser. “That means so much to them.”
No time to listen to the full episode? Here’s a short video excerpt.
- Into the Fold Episode 22: Restorative Discipline in Schools
- Into the Fold Episode 42: Mental Health in Schools
- Improving Academic Achievement through Mental Health
- Grantee story: Healthy Educators for Healthy Kids
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