SYRACUSE, NY – Rachel Junious grabs a blood pressure cuff from a table next to the scale at Martin Luther King Jr. elementary school’s student health center. She calls out to the little girl with beads in her hair.
“Come here and let me do your arm,” Junious tells preschooler Keyessance Blue.
“Can I pump it up?” the girl, age 4, asks as Junious attaches the Velcro sleeve.
Health exams like this are a regular service of the health clinic that operates right inside the school here in Syracuse, N.Y.. That’s not all – students like Keyessance can also have dental appointments and mental health services right in the school, all as part of her school day.
“Before the school based centers were here, kids would be gone for the entire day,” said Theresa Zimmer, a nurse practicioner for a local non-profit health provider, who oversees the health care in the school.
Students, she said, would miss days for checkups or a tooth cleaning, let alone on real sick days.
“Now they just send them down to me.”
Social service supports like these are a key part of the Say Yes to Education college scholarship program, which may soon start in the Cleveland school district. Unlike other college “promise” programs that just guarantee tuition to college for high school graduates, Say Yes has a two-pronged approach.
The first is offering scholarships that make college free for all students (when combined with other aid). As we report today, families in both Syracuse and Buffalo, the first two cities to partner with Say Yes, view these scholarships as a major help with college costs.
The second is providing intense health, social and academic supports in school. Research is clear nationwide that poverty is related to lower levels of learning, a pattern Say Yes wants to break. Cleveland and Buffalo are prime examples of this trend, with students scoring nearly two grade levels behind national averages, according to a Stanford University study last year.
Syracuse students were even worse – 2.5 grade levels behind the average.
So Say Yes and local partners try to close that gap by removing the health, nutrition and personal distractions that prevent students from learning to their full potential.
“The scholarships are huge, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing for kids to have,” said Syracuse school district spokesman Mike Henesey. “But all that other stuff (services) that happens helps. You’re working with these kids from the ground up.”
On our recent visit to Syracuse and Buffalo offered a preview of what the program could look like in Cleveland. The details differ by city and school, of how it would look in Cleveland will be developed over the next year, but the overall approach would be the same
The result is a plan that already has seeds in Cleveland, which has “wraparound ” services at 25 of its most-challenged and struggling schools the last few years.
“We have virtually all of this going on some level in Cleveland,” district CEO Eric Gordon said.
But Cleveland’s progress is just a head start toward more extensive and focused programs in Syracuse and Buffalo,
Here’s what Say Yes brings to schools. Read details below the chart:
Social service coordinators: Say Yes wants a “family support specialist” in each school – a full-time employee who work with students, parents and the community to connect students and families to services that they need.
“You come to me and I can lead you anywhere you need to go,” said Hope Tuck, a family support specialist at Buffalo’s Lovejoy Discovery School.
Services include having a food pantry at the schools, sending backpacks of food home on weekends with students, providing clothes or helping parents with heat in the winter.
That job is very similar to the 25 “site coordinators” that the Cleveland district and United Way of Greater Cleveland have put in the city’s neediest schools. A partnership with Say Yes would likely mean keeping those coordinators and then adding them to all or most of the remaining schools.
Health and dental services: Both Syracuse and Buffalo have set up health and dental clinics in many schools to serve students and their families. By partnering with existing local health care providers, the full-service clinics can take insurance and Medicaid and are at no cost to the school.
Cleveland has created similar clinics for some of its schools, though not all. It has just one clinic with its own space at Mound Elementary School on the southeast side, and that’s open just one day a week. Syracuse and Buffalo, by comparison, which have several school clinics each with more extensive hours.
Other schools are served here by rolling clinics on buses, mainly through MetroHealth, though only about once a month. Buffalo, a slightly smaller district, will have two buses serving students this fall.
And though Cleveland has dental care in some schools through the dental school at Case Western Reserve University, that’s just once a year at each school, not a few days a week at some schools in Syracuse and Buffalo.
Legal clinics: Both Syracuse and Buffalo have set up partnerships with local groups of volunteer lawyers to offer free legal clinics for families with students in the district.
In Buffalo, five schools spread across the city open their doors for a few hours for families to receive advice on issues with employment disputes, housing problems, immigration and family issues. In Syracuse, there’s just one in-school clinic, with four others not in school buildings.
“These issues destroy families,” said Will Keresztes, who heads community engagement for the Buffalo schools. “A child in crisis at home has great difficulty coming to school and having an ordinary school experience.”
Community schools: Buffalo goes another step further and now has 14 “community schools” where students, along with other children in the neighborhood, come for intense afterschool programs. These usually last until after 5 pm, so childcare is solved for parents until after work. Students are fed dinner.
Similar afterschool programs also happen in other schools.
These schools also have Saturday programs for parents and students, designed to have community arents and community members visit the schools. Topics at Buffalo’s East High School have included African drumming, how to find mentorships, SAT prep, and a trip to see the “Hidden Figures” movie.
“It’s not your traditional idea of school, but all of the activities are based on some educational idea,” said Aitina Fareed-Cooke, the full-time “navigator” that organizes community school activities.
A few have new “parent centers” – rooms with computers and tables that parents can come use any time – to encourage them to be in schools more. Those centers also provide information on classes and district programs.
Mental health services: All three districts value having mental health and counseling services – all from outside specialists – available in their schools for students. These are al no cost to the district, with counties, Medicaid and insurance covering the costs.