Using Integrated Student Supports to Keep Kids in School

Communities In Schools’ President Dan Cardinali Talks to nFocus Solutions about the Organization’s Approach to Improving Academic Success and Graduation Rates in Schools Across America

Roughly 7,000 students drop out of public schools across the country daily. While difficult to comprehend, this figure equates to about 1.3 million students who fail to get their high school diplomas each year, according to a 2010 Editorial Projects in Education Center report.

It goes without saying that the social and economic impact the dropout crisis has on our nation is staggering. Dropout prevention measures are in dire need. Fortunately, Communities In Schools (CIS) is up for the challenge. Established in 1977, CIS opened its doors to provide a new approach for dealing with the dropout epidemic. CIS is a nationwide network serving more than 1.25 million students in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Through its integrated student supports model, CIS establishes relationships with local businesses, social service organizations and health care providers to ensure children – and their families – have the resources they need to succeed in school and life.

CIS President Dan Cardinali is no stranger to working with families in the grip of poverty. His 25-year career began in Latin America, working as a community organizer for impoverished families in Guadalajara. After returning to the United States, he ran an international leadership program before joining the CIS national office as vice president in 1999. In 2004, Cardinali became the organization’s president, where he oversees national office operations and supports the work of nearly 200 local affiliates who are committed to student success.

Earlier this year, CIS and nFocus kicked off a partnership designed to help the organization gain a much deeper understanding of the performance and demographic data provided by its network. Cardinali recently sat down with nFocus to discuss the organization’s mission, its approach to dropout prevention and what the future holds for the growing movement.

Read the Q&A below and note that more from Cardinali can be heard at Communities for Change 2013, nFocus’ annual conference for nonprofits, communities and foundations looking to network and share successes and lessons learned in addressing large-scale social issues. If you haven’t already, be sure to sign up and reserve your seat at the conference today! Communities for Change 2013 will be held in Omaha, Neb., Oct. 23-25.

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nFocus: What is Communities In Schools’ mission?

Cardinali: Communities In Schools is the nation’s largest and most effective dropout-prevention organization. We believe our approach is innovative because of our integrated student supports model, which places trained site coordinators inside schools to help students in need. That coordinator sits on the school management team with the principal and teachers. Together, they develop a comprehensive prevention and intervention strategy. When fully adopted by the school, that strategy, combined with the existing efforts of the teachers and faculty, helps drive improved academic performance.

nFocus: One of CIS’ goals is to lower the national dropout rate, which frequently is linked to rising poverty levels. Previously, you said that you believe poverty is “pervasive but invisible.” Why do you think this is?

Cardinali: In the United States, about 22 percent of our young people are living in poverty. However, this is not a statistic that’s evenly distributed across communities. Instead, it tends to be concentrated in particular neighborhoods. There is sort of an invisible wall around a poor neighborhood, which isolates it from the mainstream community. As a result, the wealthy and middle class in our society do not have to routinely confront poverty. The reality that a significant number of our neighbors live in poverty is often hidden from view.

As a society, we’ve become willing to tolerate the cost of poverty through government-supported programs such as welfare or Medicaid. We’re also willing to accept the underemployment of young people and a criminal justice system that is, in a sense, a very predictable pipeline from poor communities into prisons. But, in today’s changing economy, the shifting of a lot of folks who are historically middle class to working poor has created a big fissure in society. There is a silver lining to this problem: more light is being shed on a problem that is pervasive and, more importantly, more systemic than people know.

nFocus: CIS uses an integrated student supports model, where a young person’s needs are addressed both inside and outside the classroom. What are some of the components within this model and how does it work to improve outcomes within the community?

Cardinali: There are a handful of essential elements that make up our effective integrated student supports approach. The most important element is a trained site coordinator. This individual is trained and certified by our national office on the CIS model of integrated student supports and the importance of the model becoming part of a school’s overall architecture. For such a model to be effective, the school leadership must know how to leverage it. The coordinator, or team of coordinators, will collaborate with the school’s leadership team. Together, they conduct a comprehensive needs assessment that looks at the assets and deficits in that school from a prevention and intervention standpoint.

There are broad prevention services, which we define as level-one services that are provided to the whole school. These include parental outreach programs, access to food banks, resources for teachers dealing with immigrant populations – or anything that helps schools support their students. Additionally, the team employs a level-two service provision strategy that targets, at a minimum, the lowest performing 5 to 10 percent of students in the school. This begins with an in-depth individual student assessment and the development of a case plan specific to the individual student’s needs.

This approach is a hallmark of our unique model; it doesn’t presume a suite of services are necessary, it is actually student-prompted! Finally, we’re data-driven. We set goals for improving whole school and individual student outcomes, including improved attendance, behavior and academic course performance and, ultimately, promotion and high school graduation.

nFocus: How does CIS measure an individual student’s success?

Cardinali: We know that you have to get a student to school. If students are not attending, that’s problem number one. They have to behave when they’re in class so they can pay attention to what is being taught.  We have to support them so they can improve their academic course performance. It’s a known fact that if students are performing well academically, if they have been successfully promoted from one grade to the next, they will eventually graduate.

There’s a lot of research about early warning indicators. We use these indicators to create a data mechanism in the school that can pick up when kids begin to have problems with attendance, behavior or academic performance. Some of those kids just need a light nudge to get them back on track and attending class. But in other cases, there is a very critical set of issues, such as a parent who is incarcerated or working two jobs, or a student who is in charge of child care for his or her younger siblings. We call these “code-red situations,” which require an intensive set of interventions to stabilize that student and to reach out to his or her family.

nFocus: You’ve previously stated that relationships, not programs, are what have the most impact on a child’s life. How does that come into play when CIS sets out to engage with students and their families, teachers and principals and other community leaders?

Cardinali: Very early on when CIS came onto the scene, our practitioners realized that young people often do not have stable adults in their lives. It is easy to blame the family, but there are many struggling families with parents who work at more than one job and they are just overwhelmed. The brutal fact, however, is that a young person without a caring adult in his or her life is really unavailable to almost everything else. We’ve known for a long time that an adult relationship establishes attachments, increases trust and lowers brain toxicity so young people can have higher-order thinking. Research has finally caught up with us to prove that. What CIS has done successfully is scale the ability to bring skilled, trained adults into schools who are capable of building trusting relationships with young people in a variety of situations.

nFocus: What do you say to a school district that believes it can’t take on integrated student supports because of resource cuts and other challenges?

Cardinali: Our first response is that we really can’t afford not to provide support for these students. Frequently, schools are coping with issues they aren’t equipped to deal with, such as managing gang infestation or poverty and hunger. Schools often don’t know what to do when 30 percent of their kids are homeless and in shelters; they’re simply not set up to deal with that.

When the CIS model is fully implemented, we keep at-risk kids in school. We’re able to show school leadership that we’re an effective organization with measurable results. If we’re able to work with a school and its students, we can find ways to make the school successful.

nFocus: CIS recently announced that nFocus Solutions will be its data management provider for your network of almost  200 affiliates nationwide. What does this partnership mean for CIS and how will you be leveraging our technology offering?

Cardinali: We went with nFocus for a number of reasons. For one, nFocus has a deep alignment with the values and aspirations that we share. That was very important to us. The second is that it was clear the company could work with our model. nFocus respects our work and the software it offers is very high quality. It’s also very adaptable to our integrated supports model. The solutions enable us to prove our work, but more importantly, to learn from our own work so that we can adapt and continue to create effective practices.  The data solution offered by nFocus has enabled us as an organization to continue to learn and enhance our own internal operations.

The quality of data that we will get from the nFocus system will also help us accelerate our ability to be more evidence-based and clear about what kinds of recommendations we should be making to practitioners and policy makers.

nFocus: What can you tell us about your upcoming session at nFocus Solutions’ Communities for Change 2013?

 Cardinali: I’d like talk about the complexity of the dropout problem and then demonstrate why an integrated student support strategy is a necessary but not sufficient component. The bottom line is that there are no silver bullets. It is a community and ultimately a leadership decision to put dropout prevention strategies in place. At Communities for Change 2013, our audience will gain an appreciation for the flexibility that an integrated student support provision approach can provide, allowing schools and communities to adapt to a variety of needs. We look forward to being there this October!

To learn more about CIS, visit www.communitiesinschools.org. Click here to read more about Dan Cardinali’s presentation, as well as other sessions and workshops being offered, at Communities for Change 2013, Oct. 23-25 in Omaha, Neb.

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