02/26/2013 06:22 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

Accelerating Innovation Through Integrated Student Supports

Austin, Texas, likes to cultivate a reputation for weirdness, but there are some pretty wonderful things going on in the Austin Independent School District, as I discovered during a visit earlier this month.

Throughout the city, students are learning about persistence, empathy and honesty right alongside math, science and history. Those non-cognitive lessons are tightly integrated with the more traditional curriculum, helping move Austin to the forefront of the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) movement nationwide.

The goal of SEL is to prepare kids for success in school and in life by building their capacity to self-regulate, to persist through challenges, and to develop healthy relations with peers and adults. These are crucial skills that were once learned at the dinner table or in the church pew or in dozens of other community settings.

But as community support structures have withered away, our kids increasingly come to school without the life tools that, it turns out, are essential to high school graduation, post-secondary attainment and a successful career. When the school day becomes a succession of personal meltdowns and interpersonal conflicts, there may be precious little opportunity for things like reading, writing and arithmetic.

For many years, our public school teachers have recognized the problem and tried their best to address it in an ad hoc way. Meanwhile, national organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) are working to rationalize the field of non-cognitive learning through research, programming, assessments and more.

Austin is one of eight large school districts around the country where CASEL is hoping "to achieve the goal of making social and emotional learning an essential part of every child's education." Under the leadership of Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, who advocates a "whole child" approach to education, it's clear that SEL is becoming an integral part of the curriculum.

Walk the hallways of a public school in Austin, and it's hard to miss the well-defined "Peace Areas" where students can go to regulate their emotions or the brightly colored posters where kids have put their own artistic spin on concepts like empathy, compassion and peacemaking.

With 57 schools already participating in the SEL program, Austin hopes to extend its innovative curriculum to all 124 schools within three years. That sounds like a worthy and ambitious goal, except for one thing: A universal curriculum is not the same as a universal education.

At Communities In Schools, we have many years of research proving that poverty is perhaps the ultimate barrier to effective education. When our poorest students arrive at school each morning, they are simply too traumatized to learn. They come through the doors hungry, sick, fearful, exhausted and preoccupied. Even the most innovative curriculum -- whether it's science, social studies or SEL -- has little hope of making any lasting impression under those circumstances.

History shows us that, on its own, SEL is bound to fail with the very students who need it most. That would be a tragedy, because every failed curriculum is one more brick in the growing structural barrier that impedes academic achievement and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

If that last paragraph sounds defeatist, note that the downbeat assessment hinges on three little words: "on its own." The fact is, SEL doesn't stand on its own in Austin, because Communities in Schools happens to have a thriving local affiliate there. Our case managers are already embedded in Austin's public schools, providing Integrated Student Supports to economically and socially disenfranchised students and their families.

By mobilizing community resources to meet the most basic needs of these kids -- food, health care, safety, shelter and the like -- Communities In Schools site coordinators help to mitigate the grinding effects of poverty so that students can take full advantage of their learning opportunities. As certified social workers, site coordinators can also enhance the learning environment by providing essential mental health services in a timely way. Our presence offers a crucial resource for teachers and principals trying to keep an entire class on track, while still meeting the needs of students who require extra attention.

It's an approach that we've honed over several decades, and hard data prove that our Integrated Student Supports model is effective at raising math and reading scores, lowering dropout rates and improving graduation rates among populations who are most at risk.

In Austin today, Communities In Schools is once again helping to accelerate and effectuate much-needed education reform. Social and Emotional Learning, when combined with Integrated Student Supports, has the potential to be a breakthrough approach to bridging the persistent opportunity gap.

It's an experiment that bears close watching, even if the collaboration was entirely coincidental. Other large-scale SEL pilots are moving forward in districts both with and without community support providers like Communities In Schools, and it will be interesting to see whether the outcomes are significantly different.

I suspect I know the answer to that question -- and I'm fairly certain that a lot of kids in Austin will one day be very grateful that they happened to be in the right place at the right time.