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Panel: To serve poor children, a need to go beyond academics

To help poor students do better in school, what comes first: tackling out-of-school factors tied to poverty, like health care or housing, or boosting academic offerings at school?

A panel yesterday offered a novel answer: Neither. Supports should target students in school, through teachers, they said, but they shouldn’t be purely academic.

Those supports, panel members said, range from teaching students skills to calm down during a rage to helping parents access social services they might not even know they are eligible for.

The panel featured leaders from three city organizations devoted to providing these supports: Drema Brown, the vice president of education at the Children’s Aid Society, Pamela Cantor, president of the non-profit Turnaround for Children, and Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools, as well as James Shelton, the Obama administration official who heads up innovation efforts.

In the past, “Words like ‘social and emotional development’ of children were in the margins, nice to do, but not essential,” Cantor said. “A conversation is being framed today that we all can get behind, that a high-performing, high-poverty school has to do a lot—a lot more than is asked of schools to do.”

At one point, a person in the audience praised the direction of the conversation but asked the panel why their topic — students’ social and emotional needs — gets short shrift in the education debate.

“Well, our communications strategy sucks!” Shelton responded, to laughter from the audience. 

He then backpedalled, taking some responsibility for a conversation that more often focuses on labor disputes and teacher quality issues.

“We spent a lot of time, especially in the first two years [of the Obama administration], leading into a set of policies that have been very hard to get done in this country,” Shelton said. “We have disproportionately used our voice on those things that we think are hard, and I think in that context we have also lost focus on those things that are also important.”

Indeed, this year, Cantor and Hughes’ organizations are using a federal school improvement grant to build social and emotional supports into a struggling Queens high school. Their organizations are partnering to turnaround John Adams High School, which is receiving federally funding under the “restart” school improvement program.

“We’re talking about a whole child,” said Brown, who is spearheading the creation of a community charter school that will offer wrap-around social services to families. “To think that I can change that child’s outcomes for the future by just teaching well is not smart. we’re smarter than that.”