Superintendents Supporting High Poverty Schools: School-based Social Services Coordination

Deborah S. Peterson
Nora Lehnhoff


Knowing the impact of poverty on learning, many superintendents are looking for concrete solutions that remove non-academic barriers to learning. This article shares how superintendents can support academic success for students living in poverty by providing wraparound social services support. This model of support reduces non-academic barriers to learning: hunger, homelessness, and lack of access to mental health and other health services. In a five-year period of time, the program provided over 2700 hours of mental health counseling, clothing for 450 students, food for 400 families, rent and utility assistance for 204 families, drug and alcohol treatment for 26 students, and glasses for 44 students with vision impairment. This article shares the school-based social services model and provides a roadmap for superintendents who want to increase academic achievement in schools with high poverty.

 Deborah S. Peterson
Open any newspaper or magazine today and you will find an article highlighting the failures of today’s school districts: low graduation rates, high suspension rates, and poor test scores, with low income children and children of color performing the worst of all (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2010). In response, superintendents have implemented several strategies that have shown promising results: Response to Intervention (RTI), Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), among others. Like many school districts, ours had endorsed RTI, PBIS, and PLCs and our high school implemented campus-wide strategies. We also implemented the college preparation program Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) and dual college enrollment programs, inexpensive, effective ways to increase the number of first-generation students entering post high school programs. District administrators also began cultural proficiency training based on critical race theory (Singleton and Linton, 2006). Within a year, our school showed strong gains in academic and student behavior (ODE, n.d.).

Nora Lehnhoff
While many believe that focusing on race alone will change student achievement outcomes (Singleton and Linton, 2006), others believe a culturally responsive curriculum will impact student outcomes (Banks and Banks, 2010; Duncan-Andrade, 2009; Gay, 2010). Others are finding that social determinants such as poverty have a strong impact on student outcomes (Reardon, 2011). In the United States, 37% of our African-American and Latino schoolchildren attend schools with 76% or more receiving free and reduced price school meals as compared to 6% of white students (Aud, Hussar, Johnson, Kena, Roth, Manning, Wang, & Zhang, 2012). These data indicate a need for school districts to address issues of diversity and poverty. So while our superintendent encouraged our school to develop PLCs, implement PBIS, and RTI strategies, we also considered the impact of poverty on our students’ ability to focus in school.

At our school, 29% of students reported they didn’t have enough food at home, almost 20% met the federal definition for homelessness, and more than 75% of families qualified for the FRPSM program. In addition, 17% of students reported they held jobs to help their families pay basic household expenses such as rent or utility bills. Reardon (2011) found that achievement disparities between rich and poor students are now double the gap between black and white students, and income inequality affects all aspects of a child’s academic success. We, too, believe children cannot learn when they are hungry, exhausted or living in distress. Our school needed to offer a strong academic curriculum and also provide non-academic support for students living in poverty.

Those in the social services sector recognize that school districts are not configured or funded to serve as social service agencies. However, school districts are one of the only public institutions held accountable for larger societal issues such as homelessness, hunger, and poverty. While social service providers recognize the importance of Maslow’s basic needs being met, many in the education community minimize or ignore the impact of poverty on student achievement and instead point to discrete educational solutions: improving the quality of teachers, implementing a common core curriculum, using specific instructional techniques, or increasing the number of instructional minutes. Our school was also debating these issues when our story begins.

It was a clear fall day when a group of civic and business leaders visited our high poverty high school to examine conditions that help all youth succeed. Thirty well-dressed business people spent the morning visiting classrooms, meeting with students, and talking with staff. As Deborah, the campus principal, walked the visitors back to their chartered bus, she was asked what additional barriers students faced. Deborah explained that many students were homeless and came to school needing health care, food, a shower, clean clothes, and mental health services. She shared that sometimes the barriers to learning were not educational. Soon after the visit, one of the visitors invited Deborah to make a 15-minute presentation to a local foundation. Deborah pitched a simple idea: provide funds for social services coordination that would “literally help to keep students alive and in school” (Employers for Educational Excellence (E3) 2009). Within weeks Deborah was notified her school received $160,000 to pilot a two-year school-based social services model.

The pilot project was unique to this school district. Adapting the wrap-around and one-stop models used by the social welfare system, the model would coordinate community, non-profit, and public agencies; develop public and private partnerships; provide case-based service planning; and operate multiple service delivery systems on-site. A social services coordinator would case manage services provided by 1) the school (“student study team” discussions, tutoring, out of school time programming); 2) government agencies (Child Protective Services, Juvenile Justice, County Mental Health and Addictions Services); 3) community agencies (food bank); 4) businesses (donations); and 5) faith-based support services (clothes closet). In addition, the coordinator would provide direct services to youth (advocacy, resource identification, support when accessing resources) in an easily accessible, central location at the high school. The model would make it easy for families to access assistance while creating a sense of “normalcy” around getting support.

An advisory group consisting of a state elected official, a retired CEO, the director of E3, a foundation executive, and a health care executive would provide guidance during quarterly meetings over the two years of the grant. While the expectations for the coordinator were high, the pay predictably modest, and the work complex, interest in the position resulted in hiring a highly trained and experienced social services coordinator, Nora Lehnhoff.

Nora’s startup work was considerable. She met regularly with Deborah to understand the policies and procedures of public school districts while developing the model. Simultaneously, Nora was developing a cheerful, respectful space in the school’s main hall from which to serve youth. At regularly scheduled meetings, she developed relationships with the government, faith-based, community, business, public office, higher education, and non-profit community leader. She established a clothes closet and food pantry on campus, secured donations of school supplies, hygiene materials, shoes, underwear, warm clothes, and snacks for weekend nutritional needs. Most importantly, Nora was developing trusting, caring relationships with the students, families, and community.

The success of the school-based social services model can be quantified based on increased academic achievement gains, but individual student stories, such as Elisa’s and Jason’s also accurately describe the model’s success.
Elisha arrived at the beginning of her senior year, after attending four other high schools. Kicked out of her home by her mother in her junior year, Elisha was suspected of suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome but had never been tested by her previous schools due to the frequent moves. Because she was 18 years of age, she no longer qualified for support through child welfare. She arrived at our school with two suitcases, which she stored in Nora’s office, spending most nights on the couch of anybody who would offer her one. On those nights where she was unsuccessful, she snuck into the local 24-Hour Fitness Center and slept in the women’s locker room. She wanted to graduate but readily acknowledged that her survival needs pre-empted her schoolwork. Our social services program coordinated support from public agencies, community-based organizations, and mental health providers; Elisha eventually graduated.

While his situation was not as difficult as Elisha’s, Jason is another student who benefitted from the social services program. Jason was identified as talented and gifted, but he failed most of his freshman classes. Teachers recognized his potential but knew there were other factors affecting his performance. Nora discovered Jason was depressed when his parents shared they lacked money for rent and heat. Jason shared he felt isolated and had only one friend, his neighbor’s dog. Nora developed a social services plan that included regular visits to a mental health therapist, a school partner providing clothing and shoes for him and his siblings, helping Jason’s parents apply for a Section Eight housing voucher, and introducing Jason to a local veterinarian whose clinic was a few blocks from school. The veterinarian agreed to give Jason a part-time job if his grades and attendance improved. Not only did this social services support help Jason turn around his grades, he graduated on time, and is now attending a four-year college in a pre-veterinary program.

Elisha’s and Jason’s barriers to success are common to youth living in poverty. While Jason’s and Elisha’s stories of success are just two examples of the program’s success, the data are telling. In its fifth year, the social services program served 40% of the graduating class. Of the 130 graduating students in 2012, 29% received social services support for three years or longer, and 11% for their senior year alone. Most of the students who received assistance in their senior year were “unaccompanied homeless youth,” such as Elisha, who had no family support as seniors. Services included clothing and food; referrals for mental health and substance abuse counseling; job referrals; gang intervention; and family crisis intervention (rent assistance, energy assistance, and legal aid referrals for immigration, civil and criminal matters). School-based social services coordination works, and the success of the model indicates several implications for district superintendents.

While it may be easiest to provide social services support at the district level, families and students know and trust their teachers and principals. Services that reduce non-academic barriers to students in poverty are best provided in the school setting or in district satellite offices close to the schools. For example, we invited the local office responsible for the Workforce Investment Act to post job listings in the main hallway and meet with students in our building. We also partnered with a non-profit youth treatment agency, which specialized in serving low-income or uninsured youth. A licensed clinician provided on-site mental health and substance abuse evaluations, assessments, and counseling.

Next, school leaders need to develop organizational relationships with other major public entities at the executive or Board level to maximize agency effectiveness. For example, we noticed that we got more response from the local welfare agency when we went to the branch manager on behalf of our students. We also noticed that when we knew the command officers at our local police precincts, the police were more likely to help us with early interventions that would keep our youth out of the judicial system.

Funding this program may be a concern for superintendents, but we believe it is fiscally prudent. While we initially used grant funds to hire our coordinator, we later switched to school fund, realizing that we could pay for salary of the social services coordinator through savings when we didn’t need to fund credit recovery classes because more students were passing classes the first time.

Finally, the specific needs of children within a community must be considered when allocating resources in school districts. Based on data showing a low percentage of college graduates in our community, we allocated resources for support for college applications, SAT test preparation, and college scholarship application, which resulted in many scholarships. When students saw their older friends applying for receiving scholarships, it gave them a role model for applying for college. As a part of our efforts, we had our first student receive a Gates Millennium scholarship; within a few years, additional students received the scholarship as well as numerous other full ride scholarships. These successes gave our students living in poverty hope that they, too, could dream big, get the support they needed, and have hope for a future different than their past.

This model requires a shift away from our district leadership focusing solely on curricular issues to also understanding the impact of poverty on student success. While school districts are not configured nor funded to be social service providers and superintendents are not generally trained in social services, are schools can be trusted resources for low-income students and families.

Our model was successful because we hired a social worker who understood non-academic barriers to our students’ academic success, the program was located in our school, and we could easily coordinate services. This model generated thousands of dollars of needed services for students by matching the missions of local non-profit, governmental, and faith based organizations with student needs. While we’ll never know if our rapid academic gains were because of PBIS, RTI, AVID, dual college programming, AP courses, or the personalized relationships we developed with our student and families, we do know what one student told us: the social services support literally saved her life.


Aud, S., Hussar, W., Johnson, F., Kena, G., Roth, E., Manning, E., Wang, X., and Zhang, J. (2012). The Condition of Education 2012 (NCES 2012-045). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC. Retrieved December 2, 2012 from downloaded from

Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. M. (Eds.). (2010). Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives (7 ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Duncan-Andrade, J. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing roses in concrete. Harvard Educational Review, 79(2), 181-194.

Employers for Educational Excellence (Spring, 2007 Newsletter) Retrieved December 1, 2012 from

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press

National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic minorities. Retrieved January 9, 2009, from

Oregon Department of Education (n.d.). School and district report cards. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from

Reardon, S.F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In R. Murnane & G. Duncan (Eds.), Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality and the Uncertain Life Chances of Low-Income Children. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press. Retrieved December 1, 2012 from

Singleton, G., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous conversations about race. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.
Deborah S. Peterson
Assistant Professor
Graduate School of Education
Portland State University
PO Box 751
Portland, Oregon 97207