Kevin: Studies show that children who are truly connected to their schools go on to live healthier, happier lives. So what are we doing to build and nurture those connections with our at-risk youth? What steps are we taking to ensure that basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter are being met? Are we helping them cope with the stresses and challenges they encounter outside of their classrooms? And how can we bridge the divide between our schools and the community resources that can make a positive impact on children's lives? This is "What I Want to Know."
Kevin: And today, I'm joined by Dr. Heather Clawson to find out. Dr. Heather Clawson is the chief innovation and program officer at Communities In Schools, a nonprofit network that connect students and families with the resources they need. Communities In Schools help kids succeed socially, emotionally, and intellectually by focusing on the total child. In her role, Dr. Clawson leverages data to drive innovation and best practices across a wide array of wraparound services. And she's with us today to explore what more we can do to ensure that at-risk kids get all the support that they need. Dr. Heather Clawson from Communities In Schools, thank you so much for joining us on "What I Want to Know." I've been looking forward to this conversation.
I wanted to start off by probing a little bit into your background because you've been doing this work a long time and you have a Ph.D. in social psychology. What's that expression, this child self-plays itself out throughout one's life?
Dr. Clawson: Yes.
Kevin: How did you gravitate toward this work and was it something that happened when you were a child to let you know that, hey, you really wanna play a role in helping kids develop their whole self, if you will?
Dr. Clawson: I was in college and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And one of my courses was in juvenile justice and I actually got to do an internship as a probation officer. And in that role, I had a small caseload of students and it became very clear to me being a white woman working in a system where the cases that I had were predominantly African American males. And I was working with these teenagers who had, for all intents and purposes, just found themselves in difficult positions and made maybe not the best choices. And I looked at them and realized, you know, that could have been me. You know, and I realized that our systems really were broken and weren't set up to give everyone the same opportunity.
And I was really disenfranchised with many of the perceptions and attitudes of those around me who really had given up on these individuals. And so I found the path toward actually getting into the research and evaluation field where my focus was on trying to find solutions and find programs like Communities In Schools that were about the individual student and really were about providing voice and creating opportunity, and more importantly, empowering young people to achieve their greatest potential. And I found my way to Communities In Schools first as an evaluator of the program and was able to see just the amazing impact the program had across the country. And from there was fortunate to be able to join the national office over 10 years ago.
Kevin: And I tell you, it's been a fascinating journey as I've seen the work that you all do to try to mitigate some of those challenges, which leads me to really this idea of wraparound services. I mean, one of the centerpiece philosophies of Communities In Schools is you have to take care of the needs of the whole child. But talk about what...I mean, I wanna get simplistic here, what does wraparound services really mean?
Dr. Clawson: It really is a simple concept, and it's about making sure that all children, in particular, our students of color and our students living in poverty, that they have access to the supports and services and interventions and programs that they need in order to be able to be successful in school and in life. That's how we think about it. And what's really important and what we think about, we talk about this term, integrated student supports or wraparound services. It's not simply just making sure that there's, you know, a bunch of programs or services happening within a school, it's about making sure that there's awareness of those services. It's making sure that there is availability and access to those supports and services and that they are addressing the comprehensive needs of the student.
Kevin: But how do you bridge that gap of making sure that while the school is the hub, supposedly, a lot of the services they need to help kids, which in effect helps teachers have an environment where kids can learn, they're in other places? And I mean, you've bridged that gap for years.
Dr. Clawson: Yes. And we've done that predominantly with a position that we refer to as a site coordinator. And CIS, we operate through local Communities In Schools affiliates. So these are independent nonprofits that work in local communities and we place these site coordinator positions inside the school. And so to your point, their purpose is really to serve as that liaison, that advocate, that bridge between the school and the community and the school and the family. And so it is our job to make sure that we know what supports and services are available within the community, as well as within the school, who the providers are, what are the requirements for accessing those programs and services, and really making sure that we help really navigate. We are really the navigators and coordinators for students and families and for whole schools to make sure that, again, to your point, regardless of where those services reside and exist in what other agencies, we make sure that we help our families and our students know how to navigate and access those supports and services effectively.
And more importantly, we are there to also help them troubleshoot, help remove some of the barriers to that access. And we also wanna hold everyone accountable. And so we make sure that those supports and services truly are effective in meeting the needs of our students.
Kevin: Schools where you sort of embed your work, leadership varies. Some principals, some school leaders, let's say are more in tune with this aspect of work. How do you navigate the varying degrees of, I mean, for lack of a better term, competencies in terms of a school leader knowing that this is a real value add and talk through some of the obstacles you face in trying to make it all happen for kids?
Dr. Clawson: Yeah. And that is actually a real challenge. And understandably, school leaders have pressures on them for academic performance and achievement, as they should, as, you know, we would expect. And so for us, it's really helping them to understand that the types of supports and services that we're talking about, they're not a nice to have. They're a necessity. And if we ever want to get to true equity within our education system, we have to make sure that our students have access and are equipped with what they need to be able to engage in their learning.
Kevin: In today's world, where kids' brains are moving faster than they biologically should, you know, the internet, the, you know, hand computers, are you finding that the need for these services has gone to a different level, or is it the same as it was? My sense is that there are more and more challenges facing kids, particularly those at risk, but I really wanna hear what your thoughts are on this.
Dr. Clawson: What we've seen is really looking at some of the more social and emotional challenges that our students have experienced. Some of it brought on by the virtual learning experience. We know that for students to engage in learning, it's about more than just getting our students to be able to show up and show up into the classroom, but there's a social component to making sure our students are prepared and able to engage and feel connected and part of the classroom or part of the school environment. There's emotional part of engagement, a behavioral part, and a cognitive part. And so, you know, the levels of stress and anxiety that have been experienced and the pressures on students, you know, to achieve is definitely something we've seen escalate, and especially since the pandemic.
And therefore, the needs for certain types of services and supports has increased. And that is one of the challenges. And again, it varies by community, but not all communities are created equal. Not all communities have access to the same type of medical healthcare services, or mental health services, or counseling services that more and more of our students need. So that is an area of challenge and concern that we are seeing.
Kevin: Let's talk about teachers because your work at its core helps teachers because it creates an environment for kids to be ready to learn and able to learn because you take some of those other challenges off the table, or at least help to address some of those challenges. But isn't it a balancing act because so many teachers feel like understandably that more is put on them? And at the same time, isn't it fair to say that some teachers are facing some of the same challenges the kids are facing but on an adult level? So what do you think about that?
Dr. Clawson: You're right. And again, once again, especially the pandemic has shown us this. That the teachers are stressed. They're pressured. And so one of the things that we offer within our network is attention and support for teachers, for the adults in the school and helping them address their own socioemotional challenges or concerns and providing coaching and well-being support for the teachers themselves. Helping teachers understand and identify some of the signs of trauma that their students may be experiencing so that it helps them engage in a healthy relationship with the student and helps them better understand where their students are coming from so that it can help the teacher decide, I need to refer this student to counseling or to the CIS coordinator in my school versus seeing the student as demonstrating problem behavior or acting up in the class. So we do a lot to provide some professional development to teachers and the adults in the school to also help the them with, you know, managing the classroom and improving those relationships with students that again, hopefully, will allow them to ensure they have a classroom environment that is conducive to learning for all students. And to your point, allow the teachers then to focus on the instruction.
Kevin: I wanted you to help paint a picture. I know Communities In Schools has been established in a bunch of schools all over the country. But let's assume that this is a new school and that your organization and your site coordinator is there. What does the first 30 to 60 days look like? What are the steps that you take as an outside group entering into a school community where there are challenges and kids who may be hungry or have social-emotional challenges? What do you do from a relationship-building point of view to sort of calm the waters and have parents and teachers and school administrators and students feel your presence in a positive way?
Dr. Clawson: Bringing people together. It's bringing all of the stakeholders together. So that's school administrators, that's teachers, that's guidance counselors, other support staff. It's bringing families in, community providers, community leaders, students, let's not forget student voice. And remember that, you know, we don't always know what's best or know what students need and want, but it's bringing them to the table as part of our needs assessment process. It's part of our really understanding where the school is, what the needs are, what the priority needs are, whether there are differences in perception of what the needs are, so that we can help talk through those and sort of navigate why there may be a different perception in terms of what the needs are.
Really try to get a good sense of what the school climate is and feels like for the different participants within the school and really go through...I think what's really important is that in gathering this information and sharing it out and talking with all the individuals involved, it's that we also make sure that we're not just focusing on sort of needs or we're not taking a deficit-based approach, but we're looking at what are all the assets and strengths that exist within a school.
Kevin: And that's what I love about what you do because the first step of bringing people together is often so revealing because folks realize in far too many cases, they haven't really talked with each other and they haven't had an opportunity to express. So this is what I really want to know. Let's assume that you're offering advice to a new school leader. What should that leader do to ensure that the services that kids need outside of the classroom is taking place? What recommendation would you give that new leader?
Dr. Clawson: So I think the first thing would be for, again, one, making sure the leader has a good handle on what those needs are, as we talked about. What are the priority needs? Who are the different student populations that have different needs? Again, it's never gonna be a one-size-fits-all. So making sure you understand the cultural needs, developmental needs of different student groups and families. Taking a hard look at what you know, what you know to be available and really determine some of your service gaps that may exist. And then making sure you have a process in place where you are on a regular basis inviting the community in to be able to share with you what is available. You know, what is available within our community.
Again, whether it's some of the basic social service supports we're talking about, or once we...if we wanna talk about high school students and high school principals and leaders, what kind of connection and relationship do they have with the business community and to make sure that there are...and to have a good understanding of potential apprenticeships or internships that are available for their high school students to help with that workforce development and to help create multiple pathways to success for our students. So, you know, for me, you know, as we think about our work, it's just really important that the school is a place where people feel welcome. And when I say that, it's the students and families, but it is also the community. That the community feels welcome. And that in addition, the school leader doesn't feel alone or isolated, and reminding them that they don't have to do this alone. That there are organizations like Communities In Schools and like many, many others that are there to help and support them.
Kevin: Well said. Heather Clawson the work you're doing is so important for our children in our country. Thank you for joining us on "What I Want to Know."
Dr. Clawson: Thank you.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want to Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #wiwtk on social media. That's #wiwtk on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining "What I Want to Know."
Meet Dr. Clawson
Dr. Heather Clawson is the Chief Innovation and Program Officer at Communities in Schools, a non-profit network that connects students and families with the resources they need. Communities in Schools helps kids succeed socially, emotionally, and intellectually by focusing on the total child. In her role, Dr. Clawson leverages data to drive innovation and best practices across a wide array of wraparound services.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.