How to Help Students by Helping Their Parents
Communities share the specific steps they took to maximize academic success by supporting parents and families.
We’re all well aware that education leads to better jobs and higher income. Just as important, research also links education to reduced risk of illness, increased vitality, longevity and academic success that extends to future generations.
That’s why the situation for schools in Lawrence, Mass., was particularly concerning back in 2010. At the time, more than one out of every four Lawrence kids dropped out of high school. This led the Massachusetts Department of Education to put Lawrence’s schools into receivership by 2012, placing them under new management to safeguard state assets. The state-appointed “receiver,” was granted authority to develop an intervention plan to overhaul the schools through steps you might expect such as expanding the school day and replacing half the districts’ principals.
But the district also took one critical step by acknowledging that a family’s financial stability strongly influences how well children do in school—and whether they drop out.
This was especially relevant to Lawrence where the poverty rate for children is 39 percent. Poverty is one of the biggest health risks that children face today, predisposing them to a variety of challenges including exposure to environmental hazards (such as lead paint in older houses), difficulty accessing healthy food, and trouble getting to and from doctors’ appointments. The subsequent stress that parents face from being unsure if they’ll make ends meet spills over to kids. This toxic stress derails healthy development and increases the risk for developing chronic diseases in adulthood.
To directly address these issues, the district developed a new parent-support system that ultimately helped raise the high school graduation rate from 52 percent in 2011 to 67 percent in 2014.
For their efforts to create positive and lasting change, Lawrence and other communities across the country have received the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize—which annually recognizes and celebrates communities that have placed a priority on health.
Here are five steps that Lawrence and other Prize-winning communities have taken in an effort to improve students’ lives by supporting their parents:
1. Recognize the link between student success and family financial stability.
People across a community need to understand that students do better when their parents are doing better. Your partners—whether in government, academia, healthcare or the non-profit sector—need to understand why parents’ daily concerns about money and stability matter. As Jeffery C. Riley, the state receiver and superintendent of Lawrence public schools says, “When parents feel secure with their own employment and livelihood, they are able to focus on the next crucial thing, which I believe is their children’s education.”
Plus, when families are in need, students can be bombarded with additional burdens that cloud their focus.
2. Create a hub for supporting parents and students.
Parents—and students—are more likely to access the help they need if it’s located in one convenient, easy-to-get-to place. Lawrence’s Family Resource Center offers, in addition to registration and school enrollment support, a range of services that include housing, employment and health care connections. At the center, parents or guardians meet representatives from the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center, who visit once a week and can help families enroll in or change their health coverage or even schedule appointments with primary care physicians. Parents in need of financial help can also make an appointment with a “coach” who helps them navigate economic issues. The center also builds ties with local employers, hosts job panels and helps people find work or connect to training and ESOL classes. With everything that they offer, both parents and students can feel adequately supported.
Another Culture of Health Prize Winner—The Bronx, New York—has created school-based health centers that serve as hubs for supporting families. Bronx parents don’t have to find a pediatrician or rush their kids to the emergency room for chronic conditions like asthma; their kids can get primary care at school. At the centers, family members can learn how to eat healthier and be more active. And kids can get in-depth medical exams, mental health counseling, dental care and reproductive health services.
3. Look to local and external partners for sustainable funding.
You might be thinking: A hub sounds great, but how would we fund it? Partnerships are the key. Lawrence received financial support for its Family Resource Center through a program facilitated by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Partners in Lawrence designed the Lawrence Working Families Initiative, which was awarded a three-year $700,000 prize to bring the resource center idea to fruition.
In The Bronx, the New York City Department of Education partnered with Montefiore Medical Center to fund school-based health centers. Montefiore provides $200,000 in startup costs for each center. Public funding from Medicaid and government grants cover the rest after each center gets going.
4. Engage “parent ambassadors” to make connections.
Since parents understand what other parents are going through, Lawrence engages “parent ambassadors” in greeting visitors to its Family Resource Center. The ambassadors pose simple questions to spark discussion about everything from housing to employment or healthcare needs. Ambassadors also serve as connectors, answering questions and guiding families to appropriate (or needed) services.
5. Understand how a reimagined role for schools in family’s lives can impact health and academic success.
Schools provide an important connection to families, one that communities can take advantage of in their efforts to improve health for all. In Lawrence and The Bronx, schools work closely with partners to make sure students and parents get the all-around support they need. For Lawrence, the result was that upward trend in the graduation rate. For the Bronx, the impact has been seen in reduced emergency room visits, less hospitalization for asthmatic children and in one study of a teen sexual health program, reduced risky behaviors alongside improved academic performance and attendance.
Abbey Cofsky is a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since joining the Foundation in 2007, she has worked on numerous public health initiatives including the Multi-state Learning Collaborative and efforts to advance national public health accreditation. Read her full bio.
Kristin Schubert, MPH, is a director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Her role at the Foundation has focused on applying a public health perspective to the health issues faced by vulnerable populations, particularly vulnerable adolescents. Read her full bio.