Published in the Spring 2010 issue of SSA Magazine

Abstract:New initiatives are putting into practice what research about urban education has consistently shown—social supports are crucial to school reform. Factors such as an unsafe neighborhood, neglectful parents or poor relationships with teachers can get in the way of a student or a school turning around. Some schools are beginning to take a new approach, however, such as Donoghue Elementary, to allow for more collaboration between school, community and individual families, as well as a more thorough and expansive approach to social/emotional issues in school. In Woodlawn, this approach is behind the creation of the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community, based on the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, an opportunity to radically change education and the life outcomes for more than 9,000 children who live in the neighborhood.


New initiatives are putting into practice what research about urban education has consistently shown—social supports are crucial to school reform

Imagine—or recall—trying to pay attention in class when you arrived at school that morning hungry and tired, or are already planning how you’ll make it back home without getting a beating on the way. Or imagine staying focused through a tough assignment when nobody at home has shown an interest in your grades or ever helped with your homework. Or learning from a teacher who is constantly shouting over unruly students or never stops to ask how your day is going.

That doesn’t sound like a formula for a learning much at all, yet for many students, it’s a fair summation of their school day. More and more, educators are recognizing that to improve urban schools, they must pay attention to students’ lives outside the building and to the relationships among the people within it. “People underestimate how many school reform initiatives are inhibited by social factors,” says Charles Payne, the Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor at SSA.

Traditionally, the role of social work in education has been to provide a clinician to counsel a handful of students with behavioral or mental health issues and to assist with compliance for students with special education needs. Those jobs are as important as ever, but the connection between social work and education has been expanding.

Over the last two decades, researchers have built a body of empirical evidence on the impact of socio-emotional factors on how well a school runs and how much students learn. For example, in a 2006 paper, “The Essential Supports for School Improvement,”  the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago lays out five key factors: inclusive leadership, parent/community ties, faculty professional capacity, a student-centered learning climate and ambitious instruction. With a “person-in environment” understanding of the world and experience and models for providing social supports, social workers are well-suited to help design and execute programs that address these issues.

“Having good parent and community ties are a major part of successful school improvement, and social supports are needed to create effective schools,” says Melissa Roderick, the Hermon Dunlap Smith Professor at SSA and the co-director at the Consortium on Chicago School Research. “Safety and order and a strong social environment are all fundamental to learning.”

Lo Patrick, a 1998 graduate of SSA’s master’s program, is the school social worker at Donoghue Elementary. Her busy schedule at the small school, one of four charter schools operated by the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, includes tasks that would be familiar to most school social workers. Each week she meets with seven or eight groups of a half dozen or so kids to talk over topics like dealing with grief or getting along better in class, and she does individual counseling sessions, as well. She organizes meetings with parents, teachers and students when a child is having a problem at school, and she helps figure out what resources can make a difference.

But Patrick does much more. Like all the UEI schools, Donoghue is a community school, with extended hours, services and relationships to give students expanded opportunities, from targeted tutoring to karate. Patrick gets anyone who works with the kids up to speed on the school’s curriculum and culture, which includes an organized set of guidelines such as mutual respect and “no put downs.” She spends an hour or so with all support staff from partnering organizations, and new teachers get 24 hours of training at the start of the school year.

“We have high expectations of our students and a very strong culture that we align with our academic goals. We have a structure in every classroom to build community and quality relationships. There are clear consequences and rewards for behavior, and we want a strong sense of belonging,” explains Nicole Woodard-Iliev, Donoghue’s director.

Patrick and Woodard-Iliev also meet individually with each teacher in the building three times a year to talk through the academic and socio-emotional status of every student, in part to see if any of the school’s extended supports may be a good match for the student’s needs. “It is time-consuming,” Patrick admits, “but it is so worth it. I get so much good information from the meetings about the classes and the students, and I think it really helps teachers to be reflective on how everything is going and to hear our feedback.”

SSA Assistant Professor Michael Woolley’s research on students’ relationships with adults—in their family, community and school—shows just how important such connections can be to academic success. In one of his latest papers, “The Social Context of School Success for Latino Middle School Students: Direct and Indirect Influences of Teachers, Family, and Friends,” a 2009 article in The Journal of Early Adolescence, Woolley and his co-authors used structural equation models to find that teacher support was associated with student behavior and satisfaction with school and was indirectly associated with time spent on homework and grades.

Studies by Woolley and others have also shown that for urban schools working with students who are catching up academically, the best strategy is to purposefully pair a “press” of high expectations with social support. “That’s the fundamental finding of two decades of research by the Consortium,” says Roderick. “The social aspect without an academic press doesn’t improve much, but pressing kids without a strong social support doesn’t create effective schools.”

Roderick’s research also demonstrates the importance of adult relationships, including how parental and teacher guidance affects college attendance rates of students graduating from the Chicago Public Schools. “If you walk into a high school, you can figure out really quickly how to graduate— go to your classes and pass your classes,” she says. “But if your parents didn’t go to college, you might not know the kinds of grades you need and how to apply to college. Eighty four percent of CPS high school students want to go to college, but if someone doesn’t tell them how to get there, they won’t just figure it out.”

“Schools need to reach out to families,” Woolley says. “The more that at-risk kids are exposed to attentive adults—in and outside the school—the research shows that the better their outcomes will be.” Here too, Donoghue has systems in place. As a community school, Donoghue operates a number of programs to help foster families’ connection to the school and their children’s education, including a book club, a series of meetings with kindergarten parents on the typical developmental learning stages for five-year-olds and even a family exercise/dance night.

None of this is by accident. Since Donoghue opened in 2005, Woodard-Iliev, Patrick and Todd Barnett, Donoghue’s family and community engagement director, serve as the school’s leadership team, ensuring that social supports and community connections are taken into account as decisions large and small are made about the school. “Lo’s role is the school social worker in the broadest conception of that idea,” Woodard-Iliev says. “She looks at what happens across the building and for all families.”

“We need a much deeper integration of social work and social supports with academic support in urban schools to dramatically move the needle on students’ academic performance,” says Timothy Knowles, John Dewey Director and clinical professor at UEI. “These ideas are core to what we do. We have social workers in leadership positions to help build systemic approaches to bring social work and social supports to kids and to families in need. We’ve built our schools to put the ideas behind the research at SSA into action.

The strength of the UEI school model, however, is also a limitation. Every school with a structure and a culture that incorporates social supports can’t be built from the ground up. “First we learned what needed to be done from the research, and now there are some schools like Donoghue, which is an exemplar of how to do it in action. But how do we take existing schools and get them to the same place?” Roderick says.

The authors of the Consortium’s 2006 report end the introduction with concern about how their blueprint for success in the classroom can be undermined by overwhelming barriers: “At the same time, we worry about the socially isolated, crime-ridden communities where there is little social capital. While the school system must press forward to strengthen the essential supports in these schools, it also needs to build and support powerful partnerships at the community level, as well as the city, county, state and federal levels to address the very serious challenges facing our city youth that go beyond the schoolyard.”

One answer to those tough questions is growing right next door to the University of Chicago in the Woodlawn neighborhood, a community with nearly 40 percent of the population living beneath the poverty line, but also with a robust collection of community groups with a track record of success. Their latest plan is the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community, an opportunity to radically change education and the life outcomes for more than 9,000 children who live in the neighborhood.

The promise zone concept was created more than a decade ago in New York, with the Harlem Children’s Zone, which offers a broad set of free, coordinated, best-practice programs to all the children in the neighborhood from early childhood through college. In 2009, the Obama administration announced a federal program that will fund promise zones for 20 communities across the country. Led by Bishop Arthur M. Brazier, pastor emeritus of the Apostolic Church of God, the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community began last year and will apply for the federal support. However, it is already up and running, building on its relationship with local schools and with the University of Chicago as a junior partner.

CPS has approved a $1.6 million grant to build a “community of community schools” for the ten public schools in the neighborhood, supporting academic enrichment, sports, arts programming and health initiatives that are linked across schools, and the district has assigned social workers to the schools on more frequent and regular schedules. The University of Chicago is helping to analyze options for preschool programs and home visitation for new parents, interviewing teachers on what kind of supports will create stronger experiences for children and families, working on health outcomes for local residents, and bringing in partners and research from SSA, the Office of Civic Engagement, UEI and the Consortium.

SSA also is working with the schools in Woodlawn to develop comprehensive field placements at each school. April Porter, the director of academic and social supports for the WCPC, says that lessons over the years from the experiences in the field of students in SSA’s community schools and school social work programs of study have been particularly useful in designing the new placements in the Woodlawn schools.

“We want our SSA students to understand what it means to work collaboratively with students, staff, parents and community members to provide academic and social supports that strengthen the linkage between school, home and community,” Porter says. “In the WCPC schools, the SSA students have the opportunity to learn how to build and support this type of linkage not only within one school, but across all 10 schools, leveraging both resources and relationships within the community.”

Less than a month after starting his first year in SSA’s combined master’s/PhD program, Robert Eschmann was spending two days a week at his field placement at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn. He’s implemented a social emotional learning curriculum in primary classrooms, taught math to eighth graders in preparation for ISAT tests and created a hip-hop program designed to increase social and academic competencies in 4th 8th grade boys.

“We’ve been analyzing the music and making our own music, too. The kids have been writing personal reflections about their community and what they’d like to see change. I’ve been working with the school social worker in thinking about the curriculum I’m using and how to best design the groups,” says Eschmann, himself a CPS graduate who grew up in the East Rogers Park neighborhood. “It’s all been an incredible experience, and I can’t imagine being in a better place for what I want to learn.”

Charles Payne, who is coordinating the University’s role in the WCPC, says that one of the goals is to help build distributed leadership at the schools. “We’ve begun talking to our principals about what kind of professional development they want for themselves and for other people in their buildings who they think will be leaders,” he says.

Much of Payne’s research in education revolves around the idea of the school as a social entity—a workplace as well as a place of learning, and an institution that depends on goodwill and respect among parents, teachers, administrators and students to succeed. He points out that CPS schools have an annual student mobility rate of nearly 30 percent, that every four years a school can expect to turn over half their faculty and that half of CPS principals have been on the job for less than four years.

“With that kind of turnover, people can never build the kind of relationships that drive change,” Payne argues. “Starting this summer, we’re going to ask our parent organizers and parents in Woodlawn to think about what would it take to stop this little dance of people moving from one school to another and to encourage families to make sure that their child finishes the school year in the school where the child began the year. And in the fall, I hope we’ll begin getting teachers in Woodlawn to begin outlining a plan to reduce teacher mobility.”

Woodlawn’s program will serve as a testing ground for such ideas, processes and programs. “We’ll start gathering baseline data this spring for research purposes, and we’re already learning a lot about how you implement certain kinds of things. We should be able to document this in such a way as to shorten the learning curve for others,” Payne says.

That’s important because experts like Woolley and Knowles agree that to take social supports in urban education to scale, policymakers and planners are going to need to not only change perspectives, they’ll have to find the funding and the ready personnel to implement the new programs. A new generation of social work graduates like Robert Eschmann will be crucial if tomorrow’s students can say that they felt encouraged, challenged, safe and enthusiastic at school.