How can we best serve at-risk children?

How can we best serve at-risk children?

Recently, I was arguing education with a friend (and winning) when he went low with “you’ve been out of it too long, you don’t understand.” Ouch! For a person who spent 27 years as a teacher, coach, principal, and superintendent that seemed like a low blow. Upon reflection, in my 10 years as Executive Director at KASB, my connection to the classroom has greatly diminished. I had fallen victim to the age-old belief that schools, and classrooms, are exactly what they were when I was in them.

The most recent public example of this can be seen in the Legislative Post Audit report on at-risk funding. The two major findings in the report are that (1) Schools are spending far more money on at-risk students than what has been allocated by the state. No surprise there to education policymakers who during budget development every year have to make choices about how to best serve all students with limited funds. And (2) the Kansas State Board of Education didn’t follow the prescription for guidance and monitoring of the funds. This finding appears to stem from a basic misunderstanding of what schools, and classrooms look like today. It seems LPA fell victim to the same thinking I did.

In my reading of the report, two major misunderstandings jump out: 1) What is an at-risk child, and 2) How do we best serve them?

Defining an at-risk child is understandably confusing. Decades of educational research reveals that children from poverty do not perform as well in school as their peers. Because we need an easy number to audit when allocating funds, receiving a federal free lunch has become the proxy for poverty, and therefore at-risk. When legislators think about at-risk, they think about students on free lunch, because that is what it means in their world.

In reality, the research bears out in real life. A high percentage of students in poverty are at-risk of failure in our schools. Anecdotally, we know that many of those students perform well. Poverty is just one variable in what can put a student at risk. We also know that students with economic advantages can be at-risk. School districts from Kansas’s wealthiest county have worked together to improve mental health services after noting a high rate of suicides in their schools, sometimes without any “at-risk funding” at all.

What is an at-risk student? A homeless child living in their parent’s car is at-risk. An Advanced Placement Calculus student living in a five-bedroom house but suffering from debilitating depression and anxiety is at-risk. A student with dyslexia struggling with phonemic awareness is at-risk. A student whose home is clouded with domestic abuse is at-risk. A child consistently being bullied in the halls is at-risk. A student addicted to nicotine at age 13 is at-risk. The programs to serve all of those different students look very different and have to be fluid and flexible.

The question of how to best serve at-risk children is also complicated. One only has to look at recent projects assigned to the State Board to understand that the nature of schools and at-risk definitions are changing. Just in the last few years we have seen the State Board grapple with Emergency Safety Interventions, bullying, dyslexia, vaping, pre-K, transitions, and student mental health. The Legislature has asked the State Board to address these issues because of their concern about at-risk children. The State Board has worked diligently to help schools with these issues because they care about at-risk children. And they recognize that addressing at-risk issues can take on many forms.

The State Board’s work on these, and many other issues, is obvious because of the statewide implications. Less obvious is what happens in schools and classrooms every day. The first line of intervention for at-risk children is the classroom teacher. Through differentiation and multi-tiered systems of support, teachers personalize learning in their classrooms in ways that are hard to understand for those who have not been in a classroom recently. Students move in and out of specialized instruction hourly and daily based upon specific skill deficiencies. These methods rely on smaller classes, specially trained teachers, and teacher aides for their success. These methods are evidence-based and produce strong results for all children, but how does one assign specific dollars to them?

A major initiative across Kansas is meeting the social and emotional needs of students. Schools have provided training in trauma-informed practices and invested in counselors and social workers. If a classroom teacher gets specialized training to assist the at-risk students in their class, and if counselors and social workers work with all students, not just those from impoverished homes, allocating the funds in the right line items may not match an LPA auditors expectations, but they are serving the needs of all at-risk students.

When we walk by a fifth-grade classroom and the students are all on-task and engaged, it looks easy. What an untrained eye doesn’t see is the planning, the relationship building, the training, and the skills involved in making that happen. Trying to categorize all of that art and science into a line-item budget may not always look the way a non-educator thinks it should. But locally elected boards of education are accountable to the voters to make the hard decisions to make sure all students in their care reach their potential.

My friend challenged my thinking by telling me things are different now. I plan to visit some classrooms and find out more. I challenge you to do the same before you judge whether schools are using their resources effectively.