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Education initiatives: Programs help low-income students overcome obstacles that can get in the way of success

When kids struggle through school with Ds and Fs, they quickly get labeled as “problem students.” But more often than not, they’re simply human beings with problems that prevent them from being good students.

Take “Emily,” a high school freshman here in New Mexico. With low grades and chronic absences, she was looking like a future dropout who would live the rest of her life on the margins of society.

But the Ds and Fs were just a symptom of deeper problems that her teachers couldn’t see, including depression and self-mutilation.

When affluent kids turn to razor blades or prescription drugs, their parents can usually find the support they need to turn things around. But it’s much harder for low-income families where time and money and expertise are in short supply.

Small wonder, then, that low-income students make up the vast majority of the 1 million students who dropout of school each year.

Food, clothing, safety, transportation, health care, family trauma and more – students in poverty face a host of worries and distractions that can make it all but impossible to focus on their studies.

Fortunately, the nation is waking up to the challenge. Last year, Congress passed a new education bill that allows federal funding for programs that offer non-academic supports to struggling students.

These programs go by many names – community schools, wraparound services, integrated student supports – but the concept is simple: Put experts inside the schools to help monitor low-income students and connect them with the resources they need to overcome a challenging environment.

For Emily, that meant regular check-ins with a school-based social worker who could monitor her attendance and grades. Her social worker also connected her with a 10-week program that helps girls develop their self esteem and coping skills for dealing with problems at school and at home.

All of this happened right in the school setting, making it easier to ensure that she got exactly the help that she needed, in exactly the right “dose,” with far greater efficiency and effectiveness.

In New Mexico, our communities are full of wonderful individuals, businesses, organizations and agencies that offer every conceivable resource a struggling student might need – the key is simply to bring these services into the schools, where they can do the most good.

Studies show that a high school dropout will cost society $292,000 over the course of a lifetime due to lost tax revenue and increased social service costs, so the investment that we make today in boosting graduation rates will pay dividends for many years to come. In fact, experts at EMSI, an economic think tank, have documented that $1 invested in integrated student supports can yield over $11 in return to society.

This week, movement leaders from all across the country are gathered in Albuquerque to share ideas and best practices at the Coalition for Community Schools National Forum. Innovation will be high on the agenda, but we have to remember that good results trump good intentions, and students in poverty shouldn’t be guinea pigs for the latest educational experiment. The new education law is absolutely right to demand that student support programs be “evidence-based” in order to qualify for federal funds.

At Communities In Schools, we have nearly 40 years of evidence backing our work with 1.5 million students nationwide and 5,000 here in New Mexico. We consistently achieve a national graduation rate of 92 percent among the most at-risk students because we understand that it takes a consistent, caring adult fully integrated within the school setting and focused on providing services that meet the needs of the whole child.

Just ask Emily. Today she’s making all As and Bs, attending her classes regularly and showing confidence and resilience that she never had before. With support from her community and an advocate inside her school, she has gone from problem student to proud achiever in just one year.

Communities In Schools is the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization.

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