Massachusetts Addresses Nonacademic Barriers to Learning

Schools are working to boost student achievement by identifying students’ nonacademic needs.

At John J. Doran Community School in Fall River, Massachusetts, elementary students begin each day with a morning meeting. Sitting in a circle, they talk about important events in their lives and ask questions about their classmates’ experiences.

Morning meetings are part of the routine at many schools. But these conversations are particularly important for students like those at Doran, who are coping with hunger, homelessness and family instability and other issues. Ninety percent of the school’s students live in poverty and the community’s unemployment rate is among the highest in the State.

Students use this time to practice ways to stay focused in class, manage anger and work through conflicts with their peers. Last year, for example, a group of second-graders who were routinely sent to the principal’s office for acting out and getting into fights used the morning meeting to brainstorm ways to control their tempers. Their teacher posed questions such as: What kind of clues does your body give you that you’re about to lose your temper? Once you identify your triggers and cues, what can you do to relax?

This graphic has a quote from Maria Pontes, principal of John J. Doran Community School: “Before, we were much more reactive. Now, data drives everything we do.”The morning meeting helps create a sense of belonging and emotional safety for students which, research shows, translates into improved academic and behavioral outcomes. This activity is a central part of Responsive Classroom, a nationally recognized social emotional learning program associated with gains in mathematics and reading achievement in addition to more emotionally supportive classrooms.

“Our kids are much more focused on being successful,” says Maria Pontes, Doran’s principal. “When I first came on board, it was such a chore to get these kids to focus on their work. Now, they’re like ‘bring it on.’ They’ve really taken on the challenge.”

Addressing Nonacademic Roadblocks to Learning Statewide

Doran’s focus on students’ feelings and behavior came about as part of a statewide initiative aimed at systematically addressing nonacademic barriers to learning in schools in so-called “wraparound zones.” The schools in those zones, which are regions or school districts, “wrap” social, medical, psychological and academic services around their students to address their various needs.

The initiative was launched in 2011 as a key component of the State’s Race to the Top plan. Funds were used to train teachers and other staff on how to create a positive and nurturing classroom culture using evidence-based programs such as Responsive Classroom and Guided Discipline. The State also provided districts with technical assistance and the opportunity to learn from other schools that were part of the initiative.

“Improving curriculum and instruction is a major focus in the State’s turnaround work, but we recognize that social-emotional and health needs also have a significant impact on student learning,” said Rebecca Shor, who oversees the initiative for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The zones began operating in 2011 with 4 disticts and 17 schools. Race to the Top funds allowed the State to increase participation in the initiative to the 6 districts and 32 schools that are part of it today.

Eliminating Challenges to Learning

Doran was one of the first schools to join the initiative. In 2010, Doran was declared a Level 4 school under the State’s accountability system, meaning that it was among the lowest performers in the State. A school-wide survey documented the host of challenges that made learning more difficult for its students. Among them: 60 percent of the students came to school hungry and 50 percent were chronically absent.

In 2011, Doran refocused its resources on a singular goal: systematically addressing students’ nonacademic needs, which they termed “wellness.” “We knew that addressing students’ readiness to learn was going to be key,” said Principal Pontes.

Focusing on Four Priority Improvement Areas

Massachusetts does not have strict Wraparound Zones guidelines, but it does expect schools to focus on the following priorities to ensure their efforts are comprehensive:

  • Building a positive school climate and culture. Doran introduced nationally recognized programs such as Responsive Classroom and Guided Discipline to help students learn to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make healthy decisions.
  • Proactively identifying and responding to student academic and nonacademic needs. The Doran Wellness Committee—a team of teachers, counselors, community partners and administrative staff—meets weekly to discuss issues getting in the way of student learning. One specific issue that is addressed by the committee is chronic absenteeism. The attendance officer keeps track of students who have been absent several days in a row, and counselors or teachers discuss what may be keeping them away, such as family health issues or transportation challenges. The committee then brainstorms potential solutions. This year, the school started a “walking school bus” to keep students safe on their way to school. The attendance officer walks by the houses of chronically absent students and accompanies them on their way to school. Students are provided incentives for participating, such as tokens to put on key chains.
  • Building community partnerships. Doran has built community partnerships to address a wide range of student needs, such as developing early literacy, reducing chronic absenteeism and responding to crises. United Neighbors of Fall River, a community-based social service agency, supports Doran families after an eviction, house fire or other tragic event, providing food, clothing and temporary housing as needed. United Neighbors and other community partners also have played a critical role in increasing parent involvement. United Neighbors organizes “Parent Cafes” intended to deepen parents’ connections to each other and provide a safe space to discuss important parenting issues such as handling stress and helping children arrive at school on time and deal with peer pressure. While the district had partnerships prior to the initiative, the initiative has helped the district be more strategic and identify where there are gaps or redundancies in support, formalize the relationships and expectations with key partners, and coordinate amongst multiple partners and coalitions.
  • Developing district systems of support. Districtwide system of support focus on communication, collaboration, evaluation and continuous improvement of the schools. In Fall River, the district elevated the importance of Social Emotional Learning by adding it as an priority equal to mathematics and English language arts (ELA). The district’s improvement plan has goals in each of these areas and schools do the same. Similarly, each school has a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) team and one or two members report up to a district-level SEL team to ensure that promising practices are being shared across all schools. While only six schools in Fall River participate in the initiative, the strategies have proven effective and the district is practicing many of them in all schools in the district.

The State provided assistance to help each zone design and implement a strategy for addressing the priorities.

Improving Student Behavior and Learning

Early results of the Wraparound Zones Initiative are promising. Addressing students’ nonacademic needs helped them make gains academically. Ten of the 15 schools in the first set of schools are no longer among the lowest performing in the State. As an example, Doran, which was in the bottom 10 percent of schools four years ago, is now in the top 35 percent in the State’s accountability system.  The school went from Level 4 status (lowest performing in the State) to Level 1 status because they are meeting and surpassing their performance growth goals. A statewide evaluation showed that students in wraparound zones schools performed better on ELA and mathematics assessments as compared to students in comparison schools when considering prior achievement trends.

All six districts reported significant improvements in student behavior and family engagement. The same statewide evaluation also found that improvements in student behavior, family engagement, and the student referral process were the most commonly cited areas of progress.

Providing Social-Emotional Support

The systemic approach is a distinctive feature of the Wraparound Zones. It’s not just about providing social services for high-risk students or making isolated changes in a few schools. It is about building the capacity of districts and schools to address the social-emotional needs of all students.

At Doran, this systemic approach has resulted in quicker and more targeted interventions, such as family counseling for struggling students, and better collaboration between parents, students and staff in monitoring behavior and providing support. Student support staff say partnerships with mental health and extended learning providers are now much stronger and more responsive to student needs.

“In past years, we would invite a partner in to our schools because we believed that having school partners was a good thing,” explained Barbara Allard, the district-level director for Fall River. “Now, we only invite partners into our schools if their services are directly aligned with meeting the identified needs of our students or their families.”

The school has systems to ensure that partners are providing students the support they need to be successful. Each partner negotiates a memorandum of understanding to set clear expectations about everything from what services it will offer, to what space it will use.

Doran staff have also become much more data-driven, measuring partner outcomes at the end of the year and conducting an annual climate survey to monitor school health indicators.

“Before, we were much more reactive. Now, data drives everything we do,” Principal Pontes says.

Sustaining and Scaling Wraparound Services

The participating districts have created permanent student support positions and built the work into existing positions (such as teachers, because meeting the social emotional needs of students is everyone’s job) to continue providing the wellness services now that the State’s Race to the Top money has been spent. The State also has created opportunities for districts to share what they have been doing, so educators can learn from the experiences of others. The State is hosting workshops throughout the State and codified the wraparound work through the development and dissemination of a ‘replication cookbook’.

To Rebecca Shor, all schools should make addressing students’ nonacademic needs a routine part of what they do. “Wraparound shouldn’t be an add-on service,” she says. “It should be embedded in how to run good schools.”


Seven Big District and State Takeaways

From the Wraparound Replication Cookbook

  1. We need to be determined and proactive about messaging and positioning this work. Buy-in is never given, nor is it something to take for granted. Even when people believe in the work, they still need to hear clear “permission” to prioritize it and organize around it.
  2. Districts need strong “people infrastructure” to support this work. Districts doing this work most effectively managed to embed it into existing district and school leadership structures and support it directly from there. Some districts also created new structures that enable staff from different schools to work collaboratively together.
  3. School culture strategies were easier to launch (yet potentially more nuanced). Districts found it easier to get traction on strategies related to school climate and culture. They found good “packaged” social emotional programs and tools to help which came with a well-articulated training program, coaching, tools, and other materials staff and students could start to use right away.
  4. Student support systems were tougher to work on – and the end goal was often less clear. Improving student support procedures to make them more proactive and holistic proved slower-going and more challenging. This aspect of wraparound work quickly bumped into existing clutter – structures, staffing capacity, diverse or siloed administrative procedures and paperwork, and loads of school by school variation.
  5. To have a coordinator or not have a coordinator… Wraparound should change the way a school and district works. To do wraparound well, however, you do need someone to serve as the ‘glue” that binds the diverse elements of wraparound work together. Some schools and districts created a new coordinator position. Others used a team approach.
  6. Organizing a coalition of partners… what’s our strategy? Coalition-building work may require districts or communities to restructure, streamline, or reorganize partnership groups. Be prepared to “lose the name” and organize in sustainable ways that support the needs or issues.
  7. What are we holding people accountable for and how do we do it? Are there good “dashboard indicators” for this work? Most of today’s educational accountability systems focus on academic indicators; yet we know social emotional factors correlate with academic outcomes. Districts and schools committed to this work need to create methods to hold themselves and others accountable for this work.