Posts Tagged schools partnering with social services

New Year’s Resolution: Take the Time to Restore Kids’ Lives

Published by — Do we leave problems to fester, or do we put in the effort, unpack the problem and come up with answers?


A few years ago a kid we’ll call Leon transferred from a big urban district to the small, even poorer district where I consult on restorative practices.  As a 7th grader, Leon was small for his age and scrappy.  When not disrupting class or wandering the halls, his head was firmly on the desk.  He did zero work.  By December he was no longer a mere “frequent flier,” but the number one champ of discipline referrals.

Such kids drive dedicated urban teachers to cruise job postings in suburban towns and to demand “alternative placements” for unwanted kids.  But no one learns community-appropriate behavior when segregated in a behavior-disorder classroom, a residential facility, or a prison.  But what to do?  The choice seems to be either wrecking that kid’s life by kicking him out or wrecking the learning environment of the other kids — never mind driving the teachers nuts.

But this middle school’s bold principal stepped into the fray.  A committed, experienced Restorative Practioner (RP) herself, she had established a restorative-practices implementation team to work on climate-and-culture issues.  While Response to Intervention (RTI) and special education teams address the needs of individual kids one at a time, an RP team supports the health of the school community as a whole.

Ideally, the team creates restorative solutions to prevent anticipated problems like tardiness or class-cutting.  But sometimes the “frequent fliers” consume so much community attention that they need concentrated help as a group.  So, the principal asked the RP team to assemble all possible information on each high-maintenance child.

The team member assigned to Leon knew his mother was hard to reach.

Mom works, and was royally sick of getting calls from the school.  Still, the team needed to know what he was like at home.  Might there be a relative, a neighbor, or family friend who could help Mom?  Does the family have any social services already in place?  If so, what?  Did Leon’s teachers have any theories as to what might be up with him?  And lo: one teacher suggested he might need glasses.  Ultimately, that piece of intel was the key that unlocked the mystery.

But getting anything done beyond the school walls is way easier said than done.  Some enterprising school nurses might have personal relationships with outside providers, but schools don’t have optometrists on call.  They refer such matters to the parents, hoping they have insurance, willingness and capacity to pursue the issue.  If not, though, good luck navigating the hurdles presented by public-service bureaucracies and insurance companies.  It’s not really the school’s job.  But in collaboration with a local private social-services organization, the RP team helped Mom sign up for a program that could arrange an eye test.

Sure enough, Leon couldn’t possibly see the board in class, never mind tease out the tiny letters in a book.  But optometrists don’t just give out glasses, so the team had yet another hurdle to clear — which they somehow did.

And Leon’s discipline referrals full-on stopped.

This story is only unusual because of its extremes.  Leon’s infuriating disruptiveness ended abruptly when he could finally use his eyesight.  More typical are serious behavior problems with roots in trauma, neglect, and family dysfunction.  The Herculean efforts of the RP team managed a stupidly-quick fix for Leon, but trauma cases are harder and far more tangled.  But solutions will never be found, leaving the problems to fester, unless someone puts in the effort to unpack the problem and come up with answers.

All schools need an RP team seamlessly connected to outside agencies focused on mental health, housing, physical health, juvenile justice or whatever is needed.  I suspect that in my state, Rhode Island, the bureaucracies are especially insulated from one another.  But I don’t think it’s common that teachers work closely with non-school social workers.  Kids’ lives are not divided by sectors.  Some need diverse teams.

Leon’s issue was resolved with a bit of medical help and then a way to pay for glasses.  That it was so hard to accomplish wasn’t the school’s fault.  It’s just not their job.  But enough troubled behavior can bring teaching and learning to a halt.  RP teams might have to help the whole family become healthier before the child’s behavior improves.  But schools tend to live in little worlds of their own.  Confidentiality, funding, policies and fiefdoms prevent disparate agencies from working together to restore a kid’s life.

There are no bad kids, only bad behavior.

Before the RP team went on its forensic search, Leon was essentially being punished for poor eyesight.  Similarly, traumatized kids are punished for not having a better response to their trauma.  Troubled behavior will not respond to carrot-and-stick discipline tactics.  Somehow, someone needs to stop the assembly line to give significant time and attention to some kids’ problems and more time working on solving them.

That requires time, labor, and resources.  Redeploying existing outside services to help schools would be best.  But organizing that would be a big lift — even though it would save tons of time, money and misery in the long run.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Chronic Absenteeism Reveals and Causes Problems

Published by — If kids aren’t at school, all of the school’s other efforts just don’t matter.

If a kid’s not listening, she’s not learning. If the kid’s not even in school, she’s certainly not listening.

Showing up every day and on time are skills absolutely necessary to success, especially at the entry level of any job or profession. Who would argue?

And yet, high absenteeism is a huge problem across the nation.

Hedy Chang, the Director of Attendance Works, says that Americans are perfectly aware that compulsory attendance at school is the law. They just don’t much care.

And no one teaches parents how to get 3 kids up, dressed, fed and out the door on time. It’s a feat. More challenging for some than others.

So Attendance Works’ mission is to help communities get their kids to school.

High absenteeism is a chronic problem that contributes to the more famous problems of low achievement and kids dropping out. Urban schools in particular are vilified for their poor academic performance, but they have limited control over whether or not the kids’ butts are in the seats. Yes, some instruction is deadly dull. But even schools with vibrant curricula, cool projects and caring adults can’t hang on to kids who have already disengaged from school, for whatever reason.

Chang’s research shows that kids start bunking school as early as 3rd and 4th grade.

So today, let’s focus on the littlest kids who have no choice about skipping school — those in kindergarten and grade one.

Nationally, one out of 10 of this very young cohort is “chronically absent,” missing more than 10 percent of school time. That’s 18 days out of a 180-day school year, about a month of school.

In Providence, Rhode Island, one third of the kindergartners are chronically absent. Rhode Island’s truancy law also says that three incidents of being tardy is supposed to add up to an absence, so even that one-third is seriously under-counted. (States have very different laws, by the way. In Maryland, truancy is missing 20 percent of school, or two months. In New York, each district has its own rules.)

The pain of it is that these kids will never make up the time. When kids are AWOL in the earliest grades, Chang says, “even if their 3rd-grade attendance is better, 5th-grade reading will still suffer. That includes kids who tested proficient when they came to K and 1. Low-income kids DEPEND on school to learn the habits that support reading.”

If a middle-schooler is disengaged, it’s absolute murder to get him back. So Chang emphasizes that the on-time-every-day habit needs be established as a non-negotiable when the child is quite young.

She cites three big reasons for chronic absenteeism among little kids.

1. Discretion. School just isn’t all that important to some parents. School’s convenient when it’s convenient.

Chang shakes her head, “Many people don’t understand how you learn a language or reading. You can explain the consequences of missing school to parents, but often they say ‘Just give me the work.’ It’s hard to convey the richness of the classroom and the powers of peer learning.”

“Discretion” is a parent problem.

2. Aversion. This one’s mostly the fault of the school. Perhaps the classroom is chaotic and therefore scary or stressful. Or the teacher is a bully and yells a lot. Kids tend to bully each other anyway at times, so that can get out of hand. And now that we’ve starved kids of time for recess, physical activity and running off steam, an otherwise great group of kids is bound to let off steam, somehow, even during class time.

Little kids can’t bunk, but they do get daily tummy aches. Those are red flags of aversion.

3. Logistical Problems. These include kids’ health, parents’ health, transportation, and so forth.

For example, when the City of Baltimore reached out to their chronically absent kindergartners and first graders, they discovered that a third of them suffered from asthma.

Also, transportation is a nightmare for many families. Some have several kids in as many schools. Many families move a lot, mainly for reasons of poverty. Space permitting, districts often transfer these mobile kids to a school closer to the new apartment, but that’s no favor to the continuity of kids’ education or relationships with friends and adults. It’s great if he can be bused to the old school, but if he misses the bus, Mom might not have a car, or the time to transport the kid herself.

So these kids start their school career by losing ground.

I’ve only touched on the problems of little kids. Attendance Works has gobs of research and information about absenteeism at all ages.

Chang strongly cautions that there’s no way you can know what the problem is until you go investigate. Dig. Find out. Don’t assume. Poor attendance unearths such an odd collection of issues that only good information can help to tailor good responses. Fortunately Attendance Works reports on solutions crafted by specific districts. Find them under“What Works.”

The bottom line is that improving the nation’s attendance rate is going to be hard, hard work. It will need a public campaign to solicit the whole community’s help. Because if the kid’s not there, all other school efforts just don’t matter.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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