How Does West Michigan Spell Integration? KSSN

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National News    Since 2006, the National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools (NTACCS) has provided training and technical assistance to the Kent School Services Network (KSSN) – a systemic community schools initiative in Kent County, Michigan, formed to provide students the supports and opportunities they need to help them succeed academically. KSSN is a rising star in the community schools field and is an important example of how integration and coordination at multiple levels can have a positive impact on schools and communities.

After conducting extensive research on school reform and integrated service delivery efforts around the country – including visiting a Children’s Aid community school – The Grand Rapids Education Reform Initiative announced the launch of KSSN almost three years ago. The KSSN Leadership Team includes: executives from three school districts; Kent County; the Department of Human Services; Network 180 (mental health services); Spectrum Health Healthier Communities; the Kent County Health Department; the Kent Intermediate School District; DA Blodgett for Children; Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Frey Foundation; Steelcase Foundation; Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation; the Heart of West Michigan United Way and others. Nine schools in the Grand Rapids, Comstock Park and Godfrey Lee school districts were selected as sites for the first phase of the initiative.

Each KSSN school is driven by a team of visionary professionals, including school administrators and staff, a Community School Coordinator, DHS case workers, Network 180 staff, Spectrum Health nurses, school administrators and other program providers, who work in partnership to link students’ and families’ needs to community resources. The school-based teams reflect the assets of their particular neighborhoods and they meet regularly to conduct needs assessments, coordinate services and solve problems.

One problem that many KSSN schools have prioritized is chronic absenteeism: students who miss ten percent or more of school due to excused or unexcused absences. Recent research shows that students who miss this much school are more likely to underperform academically and ultimately drop out of high school. Building on the success of a model piloted by the Kent Department of Human Services, KSSN schools expanded the role of regularly held attendance meetings beyond mere documentation of attendance patterns and notification of parents, to identifying root causes of individual students’ absences and marshalling resources to address the students’ needs. Attendance meetings now include the principal, Community School Coordinator, DHS case workers, district attendance counselors, the school nurse and others. They develop intervention plans for individual students that coordinate the school’s and its partners’ services and address a multitude of issues that contribute to absenteeism.

At a recent attendance meeting at Burton Elementary School in Grand Rapids, the team identified a broad range of reasons why students were missing school, including head lice, homelessness, lack of transportation, a recently incarcerated parent, unemployment, and extended vacations in students’ native countries. No single partner could address this multitude of issues alone, but the partnership has made significant progress: one student at a time. Furthermore, the work at individual schools is informing how the broader districts should approach absenteeism, possibly leading to policy changes in the near future.

While the initiative in Kent County is relatively young and there are still many challenges ahead, KSSN demonstrates how systems can and should be aligned to support individual students and families, as well as to position schools as centers of their communities.