A Strategy for Re-Engaging Students Post-Pandemic

When Covid-19 disrupted schooling in the Metro Nashville Public Schools, superintendent Adrienne Battle knew she needed to re-engage students experiencing a wide range of needs. Keri Randolph, the district’s chief strategy officer, suggested they pair students with adults in schools to provide both a personal connection and a conduit to services. “We were really worried about the students,” says Randolph. “We wanted an intentional way to check in with them.”

The Navigator Initiative, as it’s called, is now in its second year and is in place in each of Nashville’s 159 schools. Navigators, who include teachers and other school staff, meet with students regularly, get to know them well, and learn what type of support they need. There are some 6,000 navigators serving 72,000 students in the current school year.

Under the program, navigators meet with students monthly to build relationships and discuss topics ranging from academics and enrichment activities to social-emotional wellbeing and even basic needs such as food and housing. Based on these meetings, navigators develop plans for their students and connect students and their families to counseling and a range of other supports. An interactive online platform allows students to share how they are doing and permits navigators to respond between in-person meetings.

The district provides navigators with training, scripts for conversations, and resource lists to support their advocacy on behalf of their students. A group of navigator “leads” lends additional support, including coaching. Importantly, the program is integrated into the district’s existing student services. During its first year, navigators conducted 360,000 check-ins with 60,000 students and connected them to scores of services. Only 3 percent of families opted out of the program.

The idea for Nashville’s program emerged, in part, from Randolph’s work with our organization, The Education Redesign Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. EdRedesign promotes a personalized, relationship-based approach for ensuring all students have an adult outside their families who knows them well and develops a plan for ensuring their needs are met.

This strategy for supporting students, which we call success planning, recognizes that different communities have varying needs, capacities, and entry points for implementation. For that reason, EdRedesign has developed guiding principles and core components of a successful support system, rather than a single model.

The components include a navigator, an action plan, a coordinated student-support system, and a data platform to capture students’ needs and progress. In a fully implemented success planning system, individual students’ data feeds up to a cross-sector coordinating body, such as a Children’s Cabinet, that includes representatives from education and other student-serving public agencies that can identify redundancies and gaps in available services.

[Read More: Keeping High School Students on Track for Graduation]

Individualization is not a new concept in education and child development. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities and Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) offer conceptual frameworks for personalization already embedded within schools. Organizations such as Communities in SchoolsCommunity SchoolsCity ConnectsBARR, and City Year go further, coordinating with other agencies to address students’ academic and non-academic needs alike, from tutoring to mental and physical health screening and food assistance.

Most of these models fit under the umbrella of Integrated Student Support (ISS), an approach that Child Trends researchers found to be associated with improved student attendance, grades, test scores, graduation, and GPAs. Child Trends’ review of four cost-benefit studies found that every dollar invested in ISS programs returned $3 to $15 in long-term social benefits such as greater tax revenue, lower unemployment, and reduced crime.

Success planning takes the philosophy underpinning these models, adds a navigator, covers all students, and broadens the scope of supports to a range of health, enrichment, and social services. But these programs reach a relatively small number of students; they’re the exception rather than the norm in public education today.

The pandemic has cast that reality in stark relief. Some students have had every possible support to help them keep pace with their studies during the Covid crisis; others have been off the grid altogether, totally disconnected from their teachers and schooling. The prospect of bringing all these children back together and batch-processing them under the traditional, impersonalized, “mass production” model in public education seems likely to serve no one well.

Every child needs to be seen, heard, understood, and responded to as an individual. Every child needs an advocate in the school system who knows the child and their family and sees to it that the child’s needs are addressed. Relationships matter.

[Read More: The Short- and Long-Term Benefits of School-Based Mentoring]

A paradigm shift to personalization now seems possible in the education sector because of the heightened awareness and sense of urgency about children’s acute needs brought about by the pandemic. Indeed, many school districts have made significant steps to reach out to families and children as part of their remote work during the first year and a half of the pandemic.

For success planning and other models to spread, local leaders need the authority to enable schools to work with community partners. It will require additional hiring in a difficult labor market or restructuring commitments to free up time for schools or community organizations to use existing staff as navigators. Putting plans into practice also requires people to serve as planning coordinators, an additional staffing need. And there’s navigator training to ensure they have the skills to serve effectively.

Schools should identify what structures they already have that they can build on. A school that already has a strong advisory structure or robust wraparound supports in place could begin by adding the navigator function. While fully implementing success planning is generally a multi-year process, schools can launch some elements quickly. The goal is to ensure that every child is known and supported through a robust, coordinated set of community-wide resources.

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and founding director of The Education Redesign Lab. He served as education advisor to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and as chair of the Massachusetts State Board of Education. Lynne Sacks is research director at The Education Redesign Lab.