Closing the achievement gap is central to all of the Commonwealth’s education initiatives. The Patrick-Murray Administration believes that in order to close the achievement gap, we need both to improve classroom instruction and mitigate the effects of poverty. By addressing all students’ non-academic needs (that is, those that relate to their physical, behavioral, and social-emotional health – as well as their housing and other family support challenges), we will put students in the best possible position to access educational opportunities and succeed.
In 2010, Governor Patrick signed into law the Achievement Gap Act, which requires the state’s lowest performing schools - called Level 4 schools - to include strategies for addressing these non-academic needs of students as part of their school redesign plans. To reinforce this expectation, the legislation requires that the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, as well as other Cabinet Secretariats, respond to the needs of children and families and work with school districts to ensure a holistic response to child/family needs.
In an effort to ensure that all Level 4 schools have access to the resources they need (both state-level and community-based) to address these issues, the Readiness Cabinet is focusing its work first in three communities with Level 4 schools - Holyoke, Springfield and Worcester. Work in these three communities is designed to provide models and lessons learned about how inter-agency collaboration can improve outcomes for students – making an evidence-based case for expansion of this type of inter-agency collaboration to other districts.
The Readiness Cabinet has committed to working with these school communities to better equip school personnel, including teachers and service providers, to meet the needs of the whole child – and ultimately, to improve outcomes for all children. The Readiness Cabinet’s approach is customized based on each school community’s unique assets, challenges, levels of capacity and infrastructure to address the non-academic barriers to learning. EOHHS has identified three Readiness Cabinet Liaisons – on part-time loan from three agencies (Department of Transitional Assistance, Department of Mental Health, and Department of Children and Families) who are building relationships, capacity, and better linkages between schools and their state agency and community-based partners. Liaisons are also sharing information across agencies, problem solving, and sharing plans for capacity building at the district and school level. The Liaisons are working with the school district leadership – and the lowest performing schools – to support their ongoing efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty so that children arrive to school healthy and ready to learn. In each district, this work looks somewhat different.
- In Holyoke, we are aligning with district priorities and initiatives to ensure that our efforts are supportive of their agenda. Holyoke has one full-service community school, the Peck School, that has a full complement of community-based and state agency partners working together to improve outcomes for their students and provide supports for their families. The district is working to expand this model to two other schools. We are learning from the Peck School and its many partnerships about the landscape in Holyoke – and are beginning to identify local agencies (both state and non-governmental) that can be of service to the other schools with which we are working. We are working directly with the two state-designated underperforming schools in the district to be responsive to their specific needs (e.g., mentoring).
- In Springfield, we are working with the district’s Pupil Services team to increase communication with local state agency personnel. To that end, the school district has convened representatives from the local state agencies to discuss collaborating on particular issues of interest to the district. The first conversations have focused on the district’s attendance initiatives and the need for better alignment between state agency policies and the district’s attendance policies. These interagency meetings have produced concrete offers of partnership between local agencies and the school district; DCF, for example, has offered to deploy social work interns to analyze school data for children in DCF custody (and make recommendations to improve their educational outcomes). Next, the interagency group in Springfield will tackle the issue of behavioral/mental health supports for students in the school district and inventory the ways in which the various agencies can assist students in the district.
- In Worcester, we are working with district leadership to increase students’ access to mental health services. We are sharing information about best practices in other districts and connecting Worcester Public Schools leadership to experts in the field. Our Cabinet Liaison is also coordinating with the district’s other initiatives – particularly the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Wraparound Zone – to ensure that our work is supportive of Worcester’s priorities.
In addition, the Readiness Cabinet is tackling other issues that will move the needle on the Governor’s goal of closing the achievement gap.
- The Readiness Cabinet’s Early Childhood Subcommittee is focused on fostering collaboration across agencies that serve the Commonwealth’s youngest citizens, with a particular focus on elements of the state’s recent Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant .
- Another sub-committee is focusing on positive youth development and eliminating youth violence.
These working groups meet independently and then report their progress at the Readiness Cabinet’s quarterly meetings.