by James C. Sherlock
I believe a major approach to address both education and health care in Virginia’s inner cities is available if we will define it right and use it right.
One issue. Virginia’s official version of community schools, the Virginia Community School Framework, (the Framework) is fatally flawed.
The approach successful elsewhere brings government professional healthcare and social services and not-for-profit healthcare assets simultaneously to the schools and to the surrounding communities at a location centered around existing schools.
That model is a government and private not-for-profit services hub centered around schools in communities that need a lot of both. Lots of other goals fall into place and efficiencies are realized for both the community and the service providers if that is the approach.
That is not what Virginia has done in its 2019 Framework.
The rest of government and the not-for-profit sector are ignored and Virginia public schools are designed there to be increasingly responsible for things that they are not competent to do.
To see why, we only need to review the lists of persons who made up both the Advisory Committee and the Additional Contributors. Full of Ed.Ds and Ph.D’s in education, there was not a single person on either list with a job or career outside the field of education.
They did what they knew how to do and what they came to the table to do. They:
- expanded the roles and missions of struggling inner city school systems on the framework of Virginia/Multiple Tiered Systems of Support (VTSS/MTSS),
- while maintaining in the hands of the education establishment undivided government control of the lives of public school children outside the home.
To do so they ignored the rest of government and the regional not-for-profit health systems and expanded school roles and missions into fields in which the schools, and the team devising the framework, had no professional expertise.
The result was myopic and counterproductive.
The Framework has asked schools to do
- with school staff what needs to be done by other government agencies;
- with volunteers tasks which need to be accomplished by professionals; and
- with teachers additional things which are demonstrably time- consuming and in some cases dangerous.
One example: While properly targeting for community schools the most dysfunctional and dangerous inner city neighborhoods, the Framework encourages teachers, presumably including the annual crop of newly minted 22-year-old female teachers, to add home visits to their list of duties.
It offers “four branches of support” … “for schools to reference while planning supports and interventions,” the first two are:
- Branch 1: Student’s Basic Needs – food, clothing, housing, transportation, healthcare, school supplies;
- Branch 2: Student’s Emotional and Mental Health Needs
I submit that neither of those at the level of the individual student is or can be made the responsibility of a struggling school. They simultaneously present mission, capability, and licensing issues. Issues for which other providers are far more appropriate.
To get very specific, the definition of the practice of school psychology in Code of Virginia § 54.1-3600 does not include:
Diagnosis and treatment of mental and emotional disorders
That is left to clinical psychologists.
The Framework needs to be fixed — replaced, really.
- Done properly, community schools really can be what they were conceived to be: centers of community services to both schools and surrounding communities in dire need of them;
- Done badly, as currently designed by the Framework, the effort will prove an expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous failure. It threatens to destroy the reputation of community schools in Virginia by a fundamental failure to grasp a whole-of-government approach.
Virginia’s Framework, written to help the lowest-performing schools deal with educational chaos, offers instead to make the problem worse. Two signature propositions offered in the Framework:
- schools not only can but should be responsible for dealing with mental health issues among their student populations; and
- community volunteers in fragile communities can be foundational, rather than supplemental, assets to solving issues.
Both ideas were wrong when written before COVID, and both were exposed by COVID as magical thinking.
The educational establishment, always undeterred, wants to double down.
There are bills before the General Assembly for more in-school assets.
What are schools asked to do already? Schools are expected to provide, among other services:
- school management and leadership;
- management of classrooms full of kids of different abilities and levels of social development;
- child development;
- physical and mental health supports;
- pediatric and parental counseling;
- teaching of the learning disabled;
- teaching of the emotionally disturbed;
- teaching of academic subjects;
- social work;
- testing for disabilities;
- consultation related to learning problems;
- truancy monitoring and reduction;
- morals instruction (in the absence of commonly accepted moral standards);
- life skills instruction;
- school safety;
- threat analysis;
- law and policy enforcement; and
- maintenance of order.
To keep order, they must be skilled simultaneously at motivation and, when necessary, discipline. Discipline, school lawyers advise, must be constrained within very narrow windows of allowable responses to student transgressions.
Then each school must report on all of that daily.
I submit that in aggregate we already ask schools to do too much.
The Education establishment. Showing that Schools of Education and their graduate school products can mess up nearly anything, the authors of the Framework took an outstanding idea — community schools — and made it unable to be successful as they described it.
The universe of those people who wrote the Framework was limited to the education establishment. They would certainly not put it this way, but what I see in the Framework is an attempt to preserve:
- favorite pet rocks, MTSS/VTSS and its discipline component, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); and
- undivided power of the educational establishment over the entire lives of the children who attend public schools.
Indeed the Framework gets right to their point:
It is designed to complement and strengthen current school- improvement initiatives. School leadership teams looking to adopt VCSF (Virginia Community School Framework) can easily layer these elements into existing action plans and tiered systems of support (such as Virginia’s Tiered Systems of Supports, VTSS)
The Framework is written as if the rest of government and our regional not-for-profit health systems did not exist. Every place we expect to see it, it is not there.
Comprehensive school plans that are the result of collaboration between school staff, community stakeholders, families, and students.
There is even a section titled: Virginia Community School Framework (VCSF) Alignment with Statewide Initiatives. Unfortunately, to the authors that meant education initiatives.
The rest of government and not-for-profit health systems. Non-profit health systems have an obligation to provide health services in the communities they serve.
On the government side, I find no mention in the Framework of the:
- Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources or his agencies and their regional components including:
- Department of Health (VDH);
- Department of Health Professions (DHP);
- Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS);
- Department of Medical Assistance Services (DMAS);
- Virginia Department of Social Services (DSS); and
- Office of Children’s Services.
- The Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security or his agencies:
- Department of Criminal Justice Services (School safety and threat assessment);
- Department of Juvenile Justice (Gang Intervention Specialist Team, Community Reentry program, Division of Community Programs, Education Division, Profiles of Committed Youth);
- Virginia State Police (Crime prevention specialists).
- The Attorney General and his Community Outreach team
- Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court System and its prevention resources.
I have to believe that ignoring the rest of government was intentional. That had to be a ground rule.
No group with that much experience can be wholly ignorant of such assets.
Bottom line. This article is the first of a series that will recommend community schools for poor inner cities on a model under which:
- the whole of Virginia and local governments and not-for profit health systems play their proper roles in bringing their expertise and presence to bear;
- community schools will decrease, rather than increase, the burdens on already-struggling schools;
- professional services are brought to and centralized for disadvantaged and underserved communities, not just their schools; and
- In the process, Virginia’s urban Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs) are reduced.
Unfortunately, the 2019 Framework was a typical product of the Northam VDOE.
The current Superintendent of Public Instruction, in coordination with other appropriate state agencies, local divisions of each and school practitioners, should be able to craft a better model that achieves the absolutely necessary objectives of community schools efficiently and effectively.
Done right, community schools are badly needed.