Wraparound services still worth it even after accounting for all costs

There is a new consensus about the importance of addressing the out-of-school factors that interfere with students’ success in school. Though achievement gaps for some groups have narrowed, the gap between high- and low-income students has grown by about 40 percent in a generation, and now a majority of all children in America’s public schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Interest in tackling barriers to low-income students’ success reverberates through the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and is palpable in communities across the country. Educators are seeking ways to effectively integrate education with social services, youth development, health and mental health resources so that all children are ready to learn.

Emerging evidence demonstrates the effectiveness of “integrated supports,” school-based approaches that advance students’ academic progress “by developing or securing and coordinating supports that target academic and non-academic barriers to achievement.” Organizations like City Connects, Communities In Schools, Community Schools, and Say Yes to Education offer varying approaches to comprehensively address students’ needs tied to hunger, homelessness, traumatic experiences, or lack of access to medical care or enrichment opportunities.

In a recent post here on the Chalkboard, A. Brooks Bowden correctly calls for cost-benefit analyses of these approaches to include the costs of both implementation and the comprehensive services to which students are connected: food, clothing, medical care, mental health counseling, after-school and summer programs, to name a few.

So what does the ratio of benefit to cost look like for integrating wraparound supports for students? In short, the total costs can be outweighed by the benefits. An analysis of City Connects by Bowden, Columbia University Economist Henry Levin, and others, found that the program is cost effective—whether or not complementary services are considered—yielding a return on investment of $11 for every $1 invested prior to including the costs of the community-based services and a return of $3 to $1 when the costs of comprehensive services are taken into account.

This positive return on investment reflects City Connects’ emphasis on cost minimization coupled with mounting peer-reviewed evidence of significant benefits to students (full disclosure: we all have some type of relationship working with City Connects, either directly or indirectly). City Connects leverages existing in-school and out-of-school resources to create personalized networks of opportunity and support for each student in a school. A City Connects coordinator works with teachers, other school personnel, students, and families to assess each child in the school and create a personalized support plan. The coordinator then matches each child to the school- and community-based resources he or she needs, and is accountable to ensure the planned services occur.

A study of over 7,900 students in a large urban district who received City Connects support during the elementary school years demonstrated better effort, grades, and attendance when compared to their peers who did not participate in City Connects. When followed into 8th grade, these students closed two-thirds of the achievement gap in Math and half the achievement gap in English relative to the average for all Massachusetts students. Students’ four year high school dropout rate was cut almost in half.

The example of City Connects reveals both the promise and challenge of integrated support generally. On the one hand, it is what Harvard professor Robert Putnam might call a viable “purple solution” that can be favored by policymakers across the political spectrum. For example, it has a growing body of evidence attesting to beneficial impacts on child outcomes; shows what is possible for low-income students when cross-sector resources are customized, coordinated, and more efficiently used; demonstrates “collective impact” or what schools, communities, and government agencies can help students to achieve when available resources are aligned; and allows for “cost-sharing” across tax payers, corporations, and philanthropies since the costs of services leveraged for children are spread across public agencies, non-profits, philanthropies, and businesses. On the other hand, our failure to effectively integrate supports for students produces costs – human and monetary — that don’t show up on the balance sheet of any one organization but are familiar: persistent achievement gaps, inequality, low social mobility, reliance on public assistance, incarceration.

As communities across the country confront enduring achievement gaps and growing populations of low-income students, connecting children to comprehensive resources that meet their needs will become even more urgent. The moral and social costs of the status quo have long been apparent. What is new and compelling is the recent research on economic return on investment: the evaluation of City Connects shows that, even when comprehensive services are accounted for, the costs of effective integrated support can be dwarfed by the benefits to students and to society.