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Integrated Support Systems

How Integrated Support Systems Work at Social Justice Humanitas Academy
Students and parents talk outside

Social Justice Humanitas Academy is a highly successful community school serving a low-income community in Los Angeles County. There, the needs of the whole child are addressed by integrated support systems that begin with personalized approaches to teaching, advising, and counseling, augmented by a range of fully integrated services, community partnerships, and expanded and enriched learning opportunities. While 96% of the largely Latino/a student population comes from low-income families, 97% of students graduate in 4 years—well above the state and city averages—and 95% of them are prepared for college, having completed the A–G sequence required by California’s public universities.

At this small school of just over 500 students, the centrality of relationships—made possible through advisory classes and team-teaching structures—is activated as the key strategy for identifying the need for academic and social and emotional supports. Educators implement universal supports, which include routine, everyday practices such as greeting students at the classroom door each period and spending passing periods in the hallways. Teachers, counselors, and other adults use information that is gathered through these practices, and they regularly come together to conduct data reviews to monitor students’ well-being and determine if additional and/or more intensive interventions are required. All staff are involved and committed to this approach with students. As one student shared,

It’s not only the teachers. We also have people inside the office [who] help out, too. If they notice I’m struggling, they’ll have a one-on-one talk outside. We have three counselors.… Let’s say there’s a kid crying outside their class. Nobody’s just going to walk past them.… Somebody’s going to go up to them and help resolve the situation and make it better.

Office hours through which each teacher provides after-school support are another routine support. At Social Justice Humanitas, counselors are present in numbers three times the average at other schools in Los Angeles Unified School District. They are assigned to specific students and maintain an open-door policy. Concerns that emerge are addressed at Very Important Person (VIP) meetings held regularly among staff, families, and students to identify additional supports when needed. These universal and integrated practices foster relationships, enable each student to feel known, and help staff to discover each student’s unique strengths and needs. As one student noted: “The adults here, they care.”

A range of supplemental supports is readily available. One key support is what the school calls an adoption process, by which students who need additional support spend consistent, sustained time with a teacher they know. Each teacher assumes a “caseload” of three to four students to provide them with continuous encouragement and to help students break down barriers that often prevent them from engaging fully at school. The teacher can also help the student access assistance from others who provide additional supports.

In addition to in-school practices, Social Justice Humanitas has partnered with community providers to expand options for students and families. For example, EduCare provides an after-school space for students where they can participate in a range of enrichment activities, including exercise classes and tutoring, a wide range of student clubs, and an ACE initiative that is focused on the social and emotional needs of students and includes training for parents and educators as well. The ACE initiative operates through the summer and school year to nurture a sense of belonging, safety, and community. University partnerships with UCLA Center X and other local institutions support professional development for staff and school leadership as well as activities for students, ranging from field trips and internships to summer camps.

Students are also connected to a range of outside services, such as a mobile health clinic each week; mental health services, including crisis intervention and individual, group, and family therapy when needed; and connections to food services, housing supports, and clothing for families in need.

One student shared how integrated student supports have made a lifelong difference for him:

I lived in really bad poverty and never saw myself even going to high school or college…. That wasn’t in the plan for me. In orientation [at Social Justice Humanitas] it really got my attention, and it made me believe in myself. The teachers and mentors were working with me one-on-one. I became very good at reading, [got] high test scores, and began doing [well] in school, but they were not only focusing on my academics but what I was going through. I was going through very emotional hard stuff. The counselor[s] took their time talking to me and making sure I was OK.… It really stuck with me, knowing that I can seek out help and that I’m not going to be shamed.

For this student and others, the integration of academic, social, emotional, health, mental health, and family supports becomes a lifeline to success that is part of the school’s coherent design for caring.

Overview of Integrated Support Systems

As school and community settings empower young people on their individual paths, integrated support systems, like those described at Social Justice Humanitas Academy, are essential to removing barriers to learning and development. Well-designed systems weave together school and community resources for physical and mental health, social services, and expanded learning time, integrating these practices into day-to-day schooling so that students’ needs are readily identified and met holistically, without bureaucratic delays. They also ensure that practitioners have a shared developmental approach to thinking about students with an asset-based lens.

All children and youth have unique assets and interests to build upon in their learning journeys. All children also experience challenges that need to be addressed without stigma or shame to propel their development and well-being. These challenges can result from personal or family struggles or adverse childhood experiences, such as discrimination, food or housing insecurity, physical or mental illness, or other difficulties and inequities.

Research has documented that well-designed supports can enable resilience and success even for youth who have faced serious adversity and trauma. These supports include everyday practices that communicate to students that they are respected, valued, and loved, as well as specific programs and services that prevent or buffer against the effects of excessive stress.

A comprehensive review of integrated student supports found that these approaches can support student achievement, and it highlighted community partnerships as a key lever for implementation.1 Another research synthesis found significant positive effects of integrated support systems on student progress in school, attendance, mathematics and reading achievement, and grades. These studies also found measurable decreases in grade retention, dropout rates, and absenteeism.2

Orchestrating integrated supports that systematically assess students’ comprehensive needs and strengths and coordinate resources in a unified and collaborative way is essential.

The situation facing young people, families, and educators today underscores the importance and urgency of this endeavor. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty are omnipresent and acutely felt, particularly by Black Americans and other communities of color. Orchestrating integrated supports that systematically assess students’ comprehensive needs and strengths and coordinate resources in a unified and collaborative way is essential. Such a system can mitigate barriers, enhance coping, strengthen resilience, re-engage disconnected students and families, and help reduce the opportunity gaps.

The community school approach highlighted in the vignette above shows some of the ways that schools can create a coherent web of experiences and structures that enable students’ academic success, healthy development, and well-being. Other approaches to school designs, structures, and practices can similarly advance an integrated approach to supporting learners. Regardless of their distinct approaches, schools with integrated support systems create ongoing opportunities for connection and for identifying students who need assistance, taking care to include students who are English learners, are experiencing homelessness, are undocumented or from mixed-immigration-status families, have a disability, live in rural areas, or are impacted by the juvenile justice or foster care systems.

What the Science Says

Healthy human development depends on nurturing contexts. Human development is shaped by the ongoing interactions between individuals’ biology, relationships, and cultural and contextual influences. Most of the brain’s growth happens after we are born. The tissue that it is composed of is more susceptible to change from experience than any other tissue in the human body. The brain’s architecture is made up of trillions of connections, forming complex and integrated structures that experiences create, strengthen, and reorganize to develop new skills and competencies. It becomes highly connected, efficient, and specialized over time based on the web of experiences in children’s lives. The brain is astonishingly malleable, and our growth and development are highly “experience dependent.” Thus the context of development is extremely important.

The domains of development are interconnected. No part of the brain develops in isolation: There is no separate “math” part of the brain or “emotions” part of the brain. Academic learning is tightly intertwined with social and emotional experiences, mental health, and physical health. This means that schools must be prepared to address a variety of individual needs and barriers with supports that are holistic and personalized to fully meet students where they are.

Adversity-related stress is the most common factor that negatively affects contexts for development. When we experience stress, the hormone cortisol is released through our brains and bodies, producing that familiar feeling of fight, flight, or freeze. This mechanism is intense when it happens, but if the stress is mild or tolerable, it is actually adaptive—that is, it makes us alert and sharp and helps us prepare for an event like a test or a performance. This is the limbic system at work—attention, concentration, focus, memory, and preparation. But when children have high levels of continuous stress, and that stress is not buffered by the presence of a trusted adult, something else happens. Children can get locked in a condition of toxic stress, which has biological, psychological, and developmental effects as cortisol damages the structures in the limbic system and creates feelings of fight or flight, hypervigilance, and high levels of anxiety.

Relational trust is the most powerful element of a positive context. The emotions that positive relationships generate are caused by another hormonal system which is mediated by the hormone oxytocin. This hormone produces feelings of trust, love, attachment, and safety. Oxytocin hits the same structures of the brain as cortisol, yet oxytocin is more powerful because it can literally protect children, at the cellular level, from the damaging effects of cortisol. Relationships that are strong and positive cause the release of oxytocin; this not only helps children manage stress, but also offsets the damaging effects of cortisol and produces resilience to future stress. When we speak about the human relationship (see “Positive Developmental Relationships” for more), we are not just talking about being nice to a child. We are speaking of a close connection that supports the release of oxytocin as it is built through consistent caring, protection, presence, and trust.

Today, stress is everywhere. Stress caused by adversity is not something some children have and others do not. It exists along a spectrum of different intensities for children at different times in their lives. However, many children are attending schools where their health and their ability to focus and concentrate will be affected by the stressful contexts of their lives unless they have mediating relationships and opportunities to learn how to manage stress. Today, because of the pandemic and the many experiences of racialized violence, many children’s stress mechanisms are on high alert, especially if they have experienced previous trauma. These stress responses can manifest as fatigue and detachment at the mild end, or impulsive, distractable, or angry behavior at the more extreme end.

Discrimination and inequality create increased risks. While adversity and healthy development are faced in all communities, inequality creates increased risks. Poverty and racism, together and separately, make the experience of chronic stress and adversity more likely. The events of 2020 have made this reality even more apparent. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, children and families of color, as well as those in low-income communities, have experienced greater infection and mortality rates, higher unemployment, more housing and food instability, and less access to technology and the internet. The ongoing displays of racial violence have also put a spotlight on the persistent effects of systemic racism and reignited the collective, individual, and intergenerational trauma that U.S. citizens, particularly Black Americans, bear as a result of our nation’s embedded systems of power and oppression. These are also the communities that have been under-resourced over many years.

Integrated support systems can counteract these conditions by reducing stigma and judgment around support and empowering young people on their own pathways. Too often, schools assume “some” students will have issues, label them, and create isolated programs, but when schools establish environmental conditions for all students’ learning and support, they validate students’ rights to wellness and destigmatize the need for assistance.

What Schools Can Do

Many schools in the United States are designed with the assumption that students begin and continue their education in a state of physical and emotional well-being with the necessary skills, mindsets, and experiences to prepare them for school and rich learning experiences. This is rarely true. Most children experience adversity in some form at some point in their lives and need opportunities for learning and supports that enable them to thrive. Indeed, each year in the United States, at least 46 million children are exposed to violence, crime, abuse, or psychological trauma, representing more than 60% of the total.

Having comprehensive and integrated supports in place can allow schools to build on students’ unique needs, interests, and assets and address their areas of vulnerability without stigma or shame, responding in a sensitive and timely manner to within-school and out-of-school contexts.

Thus, learning environments need to be set up with many protective factors, including health, mental health, and social service supports, as well as opportunities to extend learning and build on interests and passions. Having comprehensive and integrated supports in place can allow schools to build on students’ unique needs, interests, and assets and address their areas of vulnerability without stigma or shame, responding in a sensitive and timely manner to within-school and out-of-school contexts. In addition, students will have different needs at different times. Both new structures and new practices may be needed to meet these needs:

  • Structures that incorporate universal and tiered supports include:

    • assessments that help educators understand student wellness and progress and the supports students need;

    • availability of high-quality tutoring and mentoring, counseling, and student support teams;

    • additional before, during, and after-school time for expanded learning, along with summer programs or Acceleration Academies during intersessions; and

    • health, mental health, and community partnerships with social service providers, including community school models.

  • Practices that enable these structures to be effective include:

    • strategies and practices that ensure collaboration, coordination, and shared developmental approaches across providers of services; and

    • approaches that are culturally competent, carefully integrated, and age appropriate, considering students holistically and with an assets-based lens.

While most practitioners acknowledge that all children and youth need a system of supports with these features, current systems have difficulty meeting learner needs, especially in schools serving families of color and families from low-income backgrounds. Among the many concerns raised by the current state of affairs are that student and learning supports are often:

  • narrowly framed, uncoordinated, and implemented in silos;
  • mainly designed as out-of-classroom referrals;
  • ineffective in monitoring the progress and advancement of students;
  • inadequate to serve most of the growing number of students in need;
  • misaligned with the strengths and needs of individual learners;
  • unable to provide timely help; and
  • ineffective in working with home and community resources.

Building a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system of supports requires coalescing many of the piecemeal policies and practices that have been added onto the edges of traditional school structures. Integrating these supports into the normal work of the school can increase the likelihood that a school will be experienced as a welcoming, supportive place that accommodates diversity, enhances young people’s strengths and resilience, and is committed to ensuring equity of opportunity for all.

Creating Comprehensive, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support

Teacher works with one student.

In recent years, many schools have sought to create integrated support systems by building multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). MTSS typically include three tiers of support that promote learning and development in ways that prevent difficulties and provide supplemental supports and intensive intervention where needed.3 Tier 1 is universal—everyone experiences it. Ideally, schools are designed to foster developmental relationships and teaching strategies grounded in Universal Design for Learning that are broadly successful with children who learn in different ways, as well as positive behavioral support strategies that are culturally and linguistically competent. Tier 2 includes supplemental services and supports that address the needs of students who are at some elevated level of risk. The risk may be demonstrated by behavior (e.g., number of absences), by academic struggles (e.g., difficulty reading), or by having experienced a known risk factor (e.g., the loss of a parent). Tier 2 services could include academic supports (e.g., Reading Recovery, math tutoring, extended learning time) or family outreach, counseling, and behavioral supports. Tier 3 involves intensive interventions for individuals who are at particularly high levels of risk or whose needs are not sufficiently met by universal or supplemental supports. Tier 3 supports might include additional social, health, or mental health services, as well as academic supports such as effective special education.

Interventions are tiered, not students, and supports can and should be provided in typical school environments. Students are not “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” students; they receive services for as long as needed but no longer. Providers should recognize that students have strengths in many areas and build upon student assets, not just focus on areas for growth. It is particularly important that Tier 2 and 3 services be implemented in a child- and family-sensitive manner that is culturally affirming. This can maximize engagement and minimize errors that occur when students, families, or teachers are not asked about their context and needs. Interventions should minimize removal from the mainstream classroom or extracurricular environments. These supports are often enhanced by collaboration with local service agencies and community-based organizations, with communication feedback loops to school-based staff. The key is to take a whole child approach in which students are treated in connected, rather than fragmented, ways, and care is personalized to the needs of individuals.

Schools can build such systems to implement a continuum of supports built on an intertwined set of home, school, and community resources to advance student learning and well-being in collaborative ways.

While MTSS do not encompass all that is needed for transforming how schools address barriers to learning, development, and teaching, researchers at the Center for Mental Health in Schools and Student/Learning Supports at UCLA suggest that schools can build such systems to implement a continuum of supports built on an intertwined set of home, school, and community resources to advance student learning and well-being in collaborative ways.

To organize the many learning supports across the continuum, the center’s researchers suggest that interventions can be organized into a set of six domains:

  • Embedding student/learning supports into regular classroom strategies, which enables teachers and student support staff to (a) work collaboratively to ensure instruction is personalized, with an emphasis on enhancing intrinsic motivation and social and emotional development for all students, especially those manifesting mild to moderate learning and behavior problems; (b) re-engage those who have become disengaged from instruction; (c) provide learning accommodations and supports as necessary, using Response to Intervention strategies in applying special assistance; and (d) address external barriers with a focus on prevention and early intervention.
  • Supporting transitions, such as assisting students and families as they negotiate the many hurdles related to re-entry or initial entry into school, both routine school and grade changes as well as the more frequent changes often faced by students in foster care or experiencing homelessness. Other support may be needed for daily transitions, program transitions, and transitions associated with accessing special assistance.
  • Increasing home and school connections and engagement, addressing barriers to home involvement, helping those in the home enhance supports for their children, strengthening home and school communication, and increasing school support of the home and home support of the school. 
  • Responding to and, when feasible, preventing school and personal crises by preparing for emergencies, implementing plans for when an event occurs, countering the impact of traumatic events, providing follow‐up assistance, implementing prevention strategies, and creating a caring and safe learning environment.
  • Increasing community involvement and collaborative engagement by developing greater community connection and support from a wide range of resources—including enhanced use of volunteers and developing a school–community collaborative infrastructure.
  • Facilitating student and family access to special assistance, first in the regular program and then, as needed, through referral for specialized services on and off campus.4

Through enhanced MTSS approaches characterized by these features, schools can create more unified and collaborative systems that can be used to prevent, as well as mitigate, challenges.

Assessing Student Strengths, Challenges, and Needs

In addition to formative assessment tools for gauging learning progress, it is important to use tools that help schools regularly assess student wellness and the supports students need.

To create meaningful support systems for learners, educators need to know what students are experiencing, and schools need to be able to identify the supports students need, when they need them. Structures and practices related to assessment of both wellness and learning can provide actionable guidance. These assessment processes should provide insights into:

  • students’ individual strengths and struggles;
  • patterns across grade levels and content areas; and
  • school and community resources that should be accessed to meet individual and collective needs for programs and services.

With data like these in hand, practitioners can better understand how to improve the coordination and integration of school and community resources and establish priorities for strengthening supports and filling intervention gaps. 

The Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children has produced an assessment tool informed by its 20 years of experience implementing its rigorously evaluated and effective City Connects program with 15 diverse districts. This tool helps practitioners build comprehensive, data-informed, and tailored systems to meet students’ varied needs. It does so by guiding practitioners through a series of self-assessments and prompts that allow them to take stock of the resources, personnel, and infrastructure they have in place and to identify ways that their systems can be improved.

Complementing systems assessments with those that provide insights into students’ needs and assets is also key. Measures of social, emotional, and academic well-being, such as those created by California’s CORE Districts and Kaiser Permanente’s Resilience in School Environments (RISE) Index, can be helpful both at the start of school and throughout the year for understanding where students are and what strengths and struggles they have. The use of these tools, coupled with teachers’ daily observations and the knowledge gained through relationships, can help practitioners to understand student experiences, surface considerations of what students have had the opportunity to learn and under what conditions, and connect students to the appropriate supports within school and community systems.5

Schools should also have data systems in place that allow for continuous feedback loops that are understandable, timely, and instructive. Some districts are pioneering new digital solutions to offer feedback to school leaders and educators about students’ social and emotional and additional learning needs. California’s CORE Districts partnered with Education Analytics to provide districts across the state with a new interactive platform, Rally, that helps teachers and school leaders track data on students’ well-being and academic progress by putting multiple sources of available data in a dashboard that teachers can regularly look at for each student and across their class. The data include short surveys of student wellness along with data from diagnostic assessments of learning. The goal is to support teachers in their responses to the unique needs of each individual student and to address the trauma that many students experience.

Assessment structures and systems are only impactful insofar as they are supported by practices that allow educators to make sense of data and to identify appropriate and impactful supports.

Assessment structures and systems are only impactful insofar as they are supported by practices that allow educators to make sense of data and to identify appropriate and impactful supports. In particular, it is critical that educators and other adults collaborate to analyze data and identify effective interventions to support all students while keeping a keen eye on those who have unique learning needs, including English learners, students experiencing homelessness, students with special needs, and those in foster care.

Providing Universal Supports

Teacher working with a student
Educators in the Clovis Unified School District provide personalized, universal supports to enable student learning. Photo provided by Clovis Unified School District.

Tier 1 universal supports should include opportunities for relationship-building and inclusive teaching strategies that advance learning and growth for all students.

As we have described in other sections and highlighted in the vignette on Social Justice Humanitas Academy, there are a number of structures and practices, often referred to as Tier I in MTSS, that make the core work of the school supportive for students.

Universal support can be enabled through relationship-building structures, such as advisories, teaching teams, and looping, that enable staff to know their students well, and structures that allow staff to use observations and data to understand student needs, such as assessment tools and collaboration time dedicated to discussing student needs. (See “Positive Developmental Relationships” and “Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging” for fuller treatment of these structures.)

Collaboration structures both among staff and between staff and families are critically important to the provision of effective supports. Family communications benefit from consistent structures that help practitioners connect and communicate with families, such as regular phone calls or emails, home visits, and video or in-person conferences, that allow for home–school connections, relationship building, and collaborative conversations around how to support students and their growth. In secondary schools, advisory systems are essential to allow effective communication, since it is not reasonable to expect each content teacher to communicate with 100–200 families (depending on their pupil loads), but it is possible for each of them to host an advisory of 15–20 students as an intrinsic part of their teaching load (replacing a content course) and be the point person for communication with those students’ families.

Educators at Social Justice Humanitas Academy illustrate this role in their “Very Important Person (VIP)” meetings when an advisor, counselor, administrator, and/or other teacher convene with a student and his or her family to examine data (for example, on attendance, behavior, class performance, or other needs) and determine how to address any challenges that may be surfacing. Informed by previous meetings with other teachers who share that student, team members attempt to figure out what is happening inside or outside of the school that might be contributing to or hindering a student’s achievement and build a joint plan for support.

Ongoing opportunities for teachers and school staff to meet within grade levels and subject areas to share their knowledge about students and how to best support them are also important. Collaboration structures like these are most successful when educators share information about students in ways that are focused on building success rather than naming deficits. That is, their conversations do not identify the student as a problem but rather configure their concerns as a situation that can be supported by leveraging and strengthening relationships. (See “Collaborating to Support Students at Oakland International High School.”)

Schools that foster a shared understanding of development also enable educators to provide universal supports to all students. These shared developmental frameworks help practitioners to think about students holistically and nurture them in the same way, providing consistency and safety in school interactions.

Universal supports are also made effective through the implementation of pedagogical practices based on Universal Design for Learning and culturally responsive pedagogies that make content accessible to a wide range of learners. (See “Environments Filled With Safety and Belonging” and “Rich Learning Experiences and Knowledge Development” for a fuller treatment of these practices.)

Providing Supplemental Supports

Teacher and student work together

Tier 2 supplemental supports that address both academic and non-academic needs should be readily available and easily accessed.

Universal supports—including shared developmental frameworks, student-centered observations, and collaborative processes—also help surface the additional supports that may be needed both for academic progress and for social, emotional, and cognitive development. These additional supports, often termed supplemental supports or Tier 2 interventions, provide students with targeted supports that can address their distinct, personalized needs.

There are several structures that schools can put in place to ensure that supplemental supports are available for the young people who need them. Schools may have dedicated personnel, like learning specialists, counselors, or social workers, on-site to provide supplemental supports in classrooms or in established resource rooms to provide extra help. Schools can also dedicate time for students throughout the school day to receive additional academic support. This can take the form of flexible scheduling opportunities, like holding open office hours or having dedicated class periods during which students and educators can come together to work through course material or other learning challenges, as well as expanded learning time available after school, in tutoring blocks, or in the summer. (See “Meeting Student Needs With Tier 2 Supports” for a closer look at how supplemental supports can be mobilized to address emerging concerns.) As we illustrate below, the practices used within these structures need to be informed by strong pedagogical knowledge; affirming relationships; and approaches that are focused on engagement, acceleration, and support for student agency, rather than stigma and remediation.

It is also important to have additional support readily available. Rather than engaging in tracking, which differentiates students’ access to quality curriculum and has been found to depress the achievement of low-tracked groups,8 providing access to high-quality tutoring opportunities is an effective means for schools to provide supplemental supports. There is a well-established literature on the positive effects of tutoring, which can produce large gains that can be achieved cost-effectively both in person and virtually.9 Effective tutoring is accomplished not by a cadre of ever-changing, untrained volunteers, but by a focused group of trained individuals working consistently with individuals or small groups of students. In particular, research supports high-dosage tutoring in which tutors work consistently at least 3 days per week for full class sessions (during or after school) with students one-on-one or in very small groups, often accomplishing large gains in relatively short periods of time.

These may be specially trained teachers, as in programs such as Reading Recovery that use a set of well-defined methods one-on-one or in small groups and have been found to have strong positive effects on reading gains for struggling readers,10 including students with special education needs and English learners.11 (See “Targeted Literacy Supports in Gridley Unified.”) They may also be recent college graduates, including AmeriCorps volunteers, who receive training to work with students, as in the Boston MATCH Education program. In daily 50-minute sessions added to their regular math classes, two students working with a tutor gained an additional 1 to 2 years of math proficiency by focusing on the specific areas they needed to master while also preparing for their standard class. Tutors in programs such as these have the advantage of a well-developed curriculum with frequent formative assessments to gauge and guide where support is needed.12

Extended learning time (ELT) is another school structure that can enable important supplemental supports during out-of-school time. After-school programs are a common way ELT is incorporated into a school’s system of supports. Bridge programs offered during school breaks can also allow expert teachers to work with small groups of students, helping them both catch up and look ahead in specific skill areas.13 In addition, ELT includes summer learning programs, which have been found to be most effective when they offer nonacademic enrichment along with academic supports, use a trained group of stable staff, are experienced for multiple summers, and provide a purposeful curriculum.14

These ELT opportunities can accelerate learning and reduce opportunity gaps between what students from low-income families and their peers from middle- and upper-income families experience during out-of-school hours. Yet additional time will not in and of itself promote positive student outcomes; additional learning time must be characterized by high-quality and meaningful practice in order to move the needle on student achievement and engagement.15 For example, when ELT programs reinforce a school’s curriculum, pedagogy, and core values, they are more effective in supporting student outcomes, growth, and engagement. (See “Aligning Extended Learning Time With Classroom Instruction in Meriden.”)

ELT opportunities are also more impactful when they incorporate deeper learning practices that engage youth in meaningful content that is connected to students’ lives outside of school. Citizen Schools (CS) is an example of ELT programming that engages deeper learning pedagogies for students and generates powerful results for learners.16 CS youth participate in apprenticeships that consist of hands-on learning projects led by volunteer citizen teachers. Apprentices work in small groups to do project-based work such as litigating mock trials, publishing children’s books, and building solar cars. These apprenticeships are complemented with activities that help students develop their organizational and study skills, along with homework help. Programs culminate with opportunities for participants to publicly present their projects.

Deeper learning practices that emphasize culturally relevant learning that increases student participation and motivation are also important features of extended learning opportunities. (See “Culturally Relevant Learning in Freedom Schools” for a closer look.)

Providing Intensive Supports and Interventions

Teacher meets with student and parents

Tier 3 supports and interventions should orchestrate programs and partnerships to provide highly personalized and well-integrated supports for learning and well-being.

An integrated support system should have individualized supports in place that can provide more intensive intervention for learners when needed. These supports, often known as Tier 3 interventions, are pursued when it becomes evident that universal and supplemental supports are not adequately supporting a young person’s academic growth or well-being and can include assistance from outside agencies. Having strong Tier 3 interventions in place helps to enable access to comprehensive and personalized services that can meet students’ varied needs.

These interventions should include individualized opportunities for increased academic support as well as access to social, emotional, and physical and mental health services depending on a learner’s areas of strength and struggle. In addition to supporting a young person’s healthy development, these interventions can mitigate the effects of trauma and promote healing for those with prolonged exposure to stress and adversity, including those facing racial violence and poverty and the housing, health, and safety concerns that often go with them. (See “Individualized Supports in Ms. Harris’s Classroom” for an example of how increasing levels of intervention can be accessed in a school setting.)

A number of structures help schools integrate services and interventions by linking them to a range of academic, health, and social services. Prominent among these are approaches that enable the coordination of services, which can help to ensure access and responsiveness. Some of these practices relate to routines that allow educators, families, and other stakeholders to regularly discuss how learning and well-being are being supported. Regular check-ins or meetings across teams, roles, and stakeholders can enhance this kind of consistent communication and data exchange. Internal structures like these create opportunities to ensure that students have access to what they need when they need it and to elucidate areas where additional interventions may be appropriate.

Partnerships between schools and nonprofits also support greater coordination and access to services, youth development programs, and academic and cultural enrichment. The Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support is one such example, as it has partnered with schools in building and sustaining integrated support systems through City Connects. (See “Integrated Support Systems in Schools Working With City Connects.”) Communities In Schools (CIS) is another well-established program that helps schools integrate student supports by leveraging community-based resources. To do so, CIS places a full-time site coordinator at each school who cultivates the community relationships needed to develop and implement services in an effective and integrated way. In addition, site coordinators conduct needs assessments at the beginning of the school year and then meet with partnering schools throughout the year to develop tailored plans to implement integrated support systems.

In addition to partnerships, there are school models that incorporate integrated support systems as a characteristic feature of their designs. Prominent among these are community schools, which offer integrated student supports, expanded learning time and opportunities, family and community engagement, and collaborative leadership and practices.20 These schools often draw on a wide range of community and cultural resources, including partnerships with families, to strengthen trust and build resilience as children have more support systems and people work collaboratively to help address the stresses of poverty and associated adversities children may face. Many community schools operate year-round, from morning to evening, serving both children and adults.

Community schools also have dedicated staff (e.g., community school director, family liaison) who support the coordination and sustainability of their various structures and programs. Community school personnel are typically part of the school leadership team and other governance bodies in the school. The community school manager or director generally conducts assets and needs assessments, recruits and coordinates the work of community resources, and tracks program data.21

There are several models of community schools, all of which have been adapted to respond to local assets and needs. Common models include the lead agency model, where community schools primarily partner with a community agency to build and sustain their approaches and their integrated support systems. (See “Partnering With a Lead Agency in a Community School.”) Other models include those that are university-assisted, such as University-Assisted Community Schools with the University of Pennsylvania and the UCLA Consortium of Community Schools in Los Angeles, which includes the Social Justice Humanitas Academy featured in this section’s opening vignette. There are also district-led community schools, like those in Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), where each school is a designated community school with a coordinator who helps organize and formalize partnerships that provide academic supports, mentoring, after-school programming, and mental health services. Schools in OUSD also benefit from 16 school-based health centers across the district that provide medical, optometry, mental health, health education, youth development, and dental services.22 Finally, new approaches include county-organized networks of community schools, like those developed by Alameda and Los Angeles counties in California, orchestrating a range of federal, state, and county-provided services for students in a network of schools that also function as a learning community.23

Evidence shows that community schools can improve outcomes for students, including attendance, academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and reduced racial and economic achievement gaps.24 A recent study of New York City’s community schools initiative, comprising more than 250 schools, found a drop in chronic absenteeism, with the biggest effects on the most vulnerable students, and a decline in disciplinary incidents, as well as higher rates of grade promotion, credit accumulation, and high school graduation.25

Community schools have been well positioned to support students through intense moments of crisis, including the recent obstacles posed by COVID-19. Early research suggests that with their integrated support systems and the various structures they have to support engagement and collaborative decision-making, community schools have been rapid responders, allowing them to provide families and students with much-needed supports.26

While schools can adopt varied structures and models to coordinate and implement integrated systems of support that provide increasing levels of intervention for students, it is important that approaches are culturally and linguistically responsive and asset-based.

While schools can adopt varied structures and models to coordinate and implement integrated systems of support that provide increasing levels of intervention for students, it is important that approaches are culturally and linguistically responsive and asset-based. In addition, schools must ensure that supports are available and organized in a non-stigmatizing fashion. Supports should be accessible in ways that do not create tracking or segregated learning spaces, and accessing them should be treated as the norm. These practices should extend to the approaches used to support students with special needs, who can receive individualized interventions through inclusion models that benefit all students and allow all to remain part of a broader community.


Comprehensive integrated support systems enable youth learning and well-being. There is no single way to create and sustain these systems, but key structures—including assessments and the implementation of universal, supplemental, and intensive supports—can bolster student learning and development, particularly when they are implemented in collaborative, culturally responsive, and coordinated ways. The development and sustainability of learning settings that create unified and integrated support systems has been ongoing across the country for decades. Several organizations provide districts and schools with resources that can guide them in this important endeavor. (See “Where to Go for More Resources.”)

Where to Go for More Resources

Academic Success for All Students: A Multi-Tiered Approach Edutopia
This Edutopia video, and several other articles, highlights how a school in Florida is using a multi-tiered systems of support framework to meet the needs of every student.
Center for Mental Health in Schools and Student/Learning Supports at UCLA website UCLA
The center offers a wealth of free resources on its website, including a System Change Toolkit for transforming student and learning supports and Gateway to a World of Resources for Enhancing MH in Schools & Student/Learning Supports, which is a links “map” that facilitates various forms of networking and helps analyze strengths, weaknesses, and gaps or inequities in available resources. A core facet of the center’s work is the National Initiative for Transforming Student and Learning Supports.
Implementation Science and Complex School Changes Center for MH in Schools & Student/Learning Supports
This report outlines lessons learned about pursuing multifaceted and complex changes in school systems. It offers specific examples of organizations engaged in change processes and elevates lessons learned in making substantive and sustainable transformation.
Integrate Student Supports With Schoolwide SEL Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning
This resource provides guidance on how schools can integrate social and emotional learning into their multi-tiered systems of support framework.
Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Academies Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
The Multi-Tiered System of Support Academies comprise district and school teams from across Massachusetts that are working to transform their approaches to student support for the more than 85,000 students they serve. The Academy offers eight professional development opportunities, including those focused on culturally responsive school leadership, tiered literacy supports, and SEL, creating a district learning network that may serve as a model for other districts and locales in building their own professional learning communities.
National Center on Intensive Intervention website
The center provides information and resources on effective academic and behavioral intervention programs, including research reviews of intervention programs, to assist with selecting an evidence-based approach matched to a school’s or district’s needs.
Professional Learning Resources Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children

The Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children and the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development have partnered to launch a series of continuing education resources. These resources are intended to share best practices with counselors, teachers, researchers, and other school staff to help them create high-quality practices of student support in their schools.

Rally Platform for Student Success CORE Districts

Practitioners can use this interactive tool to support comprehensive data collection and analysis on students’ holistic needs and assets. By displaying assessment data over the years, information about students’ well-being, open-ended student quotes, and teacher notes, practitioners can gain more comprehensive background knowledge on students. Additionally, the platform incorporates equity pauses, which are brief activities that facilitate individual or collective reflection on students to help identify strategies that best support them.

The Whole Child: Building Systems of Integrated Student Support During and After COVID-19 Center for Optimized Student Support
This action guide includes a self-assessment tool and developmental rubric that helps practitioners build comprehensive and tailored integrated support systems to meet students’ varied needs. It does so by guiding practitioners through a series of self-assessments and prompts that allow them to take stock of the resources, personnel, and infrastructure they have in place and to identify ways that their systems can be improved.
Turnaround for Children website

Turnaround for Children works to support practitioners in advancing and implementing whole child educational practices. To this end, the organization produces research-based tools for educators, such as a toolkit on how to use a whole child vision to assess and plan for tiered systems of support and resources to accelerate healthy student development and achievement. In addition, Turnaround for Children works with schools, districts, and networks across the country, which, to date, includes training, coaching, and support to over 220 school leaders in 76 schools to help create healthy learning environments that catalyze success and well-being.

A School Year Like No Other Demands a New Learning Day: A Blueprint for How Afterschool Programs & Community Partners Can Help Afterschool Alliance
This blueprint offers building blocks for school–community partnerships to address equity and co-construct the learning day in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Afterschool Programs: A Review of Evidence Under the Every Student Succeeds Act Research for Action

Based on a literature review of studies published since 2000, this review summarizes the effectiveness of specific after-school programs. The review uses the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) evidence framework to assess the evidence of over 60 after-school programs. A companion guide provides profiles of each after-school program included in the review as well as studies of each program’s effectiveness.

Getting to Work on Summer Learning: Recommended Practices for Success, 2nd Ed. RAND Corporation
Based on thousands of hours of observations, interviews, and surveys, this report provides guidance for district leaders and their partners for launching, improving, and sustaining effective summer learning programs.
How Learning Happens Edutopia
This video series illustrates strategies that enact the science of learning and development in schools and other learning settings. It includes several video series on various topics, such as fostering positive relationships, cultivating a belonging mindset, developing foundational skills and academic confidence, establishing positive conditions for learning, and learning beyond the school day.
Investing in Successful Summer Programs: A Review of Evidence Under the Every Student Succeeds Act RAND Corporation
This report provides current information about the effectiveness of summer programs for k–12 students to help practitioners, funders, and policymakers make evidence-based investments. The review uses the ESSA evidence framework to assess the effectiveness of summer programs and includes descriptions of 43 summer programs that align with ESSA evidence standards.

Children’s Safety Network (CSN) website
CSN works with state and jurisdiction Maternal and Child Health programs and Injury and Violence Prevention programs to create an environment in which all infants, children, and youth are safe and healthy.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website
CASEL offers a comprehensive collection of high-quality social and emotional learning tools and resources to inform and support educators, researchers, policymakers, and parents who are leading this work in the field.
Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC) website
HSC aims to support schools in providing students with healthy environments, nutritious food, health services, and physical activity. HSC’s resource center provides several tools that enable school districts, educators, and families to engage in this work, including advocacy guides and resources to incorporate health and wellness into schools.
National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) website
NASP has made many handouts from its resource “Helping Children at Home and School III” freely available as a public service to provide parents and teachers with up-to-date information and proven, solutions-based strategies for home and classroom applications.
Rural Health Information Hub website
The website contains a database of resources that can support practitioners who work in rural schools. Specifically, its resources can help leaders, educators, and other school-based personnel to build schools and systems that integrate services in ways that acknowledge and address the unique needs and infrastructure of rural communities.

Building Community Schools: A Guide for Action National Center for Community Schools

This guide provides information on several topics related to implementing and sustaining community schools, including key elements of community schools, models of community schools across the country, and case studies.

Coalition for Community Schools website

The Coalition for Community Schools is an alliance of national, state, and local organizations in k–12 education, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government, and philanthropy. It offers a range of tools and resources that can help educational leaders to build and sustain community school models and initiatives in their area, including opportunities to connect with technical assistance providers that can help communities improve their planning and management.

Community Schools Playbook Partnership for the Future of Learning
This playbook provides model legislation, real-world examples, and many additional resources for state and local leaders who want to support community schools.
Financing Community Schools: A Framework for Growth and Sustainability Partnership for the Future of Learning
This finance brief discusses community schools funding in depth. It provides a framework for financing community schools and examples of how community schools at varying stages of development can identify and implement financing strategies.
Leading With Purpose and Passion: A Guide for Community School Directors National Center for Community Schools

This printed guide, developed by the National Center for Community Schools, provides practical advice and concrete resources for community school directors, with an emphasis on their leadership role in schools.

National Center for Community Schools website
The focus of NCCS, a part of Children’s Aid, is to build the capacity of schools and districts to work in meaningful long-term relationships with community partners. Since 1994, NCCS has developed a variety of free planning tools, implementation guides, videos, and other resources and has also provided intensive assistance (training, on-site consultation, and strategic planning facilitation) on a fee-for-service basis.
Office of Community Schools New York City Department of Education
The New York City Office of Community Schools runs the largest community school initiative in the country and offers a wide variety of well-developed, free resources for schools and community partners on topics ranging from proven strategies to reduce chronic absence to how to run weekly student support meetings.
On the Rise: Cincinnati’s Community Learning Centers Partnership for the Future of Learning
This film series highlights how Cincinnati’s community schools, called “Community Learning Centers,” are working to support students and families. The videos address several topics, including community engagement, community development, pathways for all students, and teaching partnerships.
Scale a Community School: A System-Wide Strategy Coalition for Community Schools
This interactive guide is intended to support communities in planning, implementing, and sustaining a community schools strategy.
Start a Community School Coalition for Community Schools
This toolkit provides information on how to implement a community school initiative and focuses on several topics, including vision and strategic planning, building a leadership team, needs and capacity assessments, sharing space and facilities, financing your community school, and research and evaluation.
What Are Community Schools? Partnership for the Future of Learning
This video describes the four key features of community schools, the importance of community school coordinators, and strategies for funding community schools.


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For more information on the research supporting the science and pedagogical practices discussed in this section, please see these foundational articles and reports: