OPINION | Helping families improves schools

The one-room country school predates health insurance, medical clinics, food shelves, family planning services, after-school enrichment programs and community education. Yet, the one-room country school house defined wrap-around educational services well before anyone conceived the term “wrap around services.” There’s a lesson to be learned here.

Minnesota faces two distinct and interesting challenges. First, wealth is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands. Second, we’ve reached the limits of conventional systemic educational outcomes, something highlighted by a dozen years of reduced school funding. These phenomenon are linked. A strong public education system, we believe, is essential to democracy’s function and to economic prosperity. What’s good for schools, in other words, is good for business. School funding has, however, declined as wealth concentrates into fewer and fewer hands. Less school funding undermines education’s capacity to prepare students as a competitive, flexible and highly capable workforce.

Education creates a clear path to improved family stability. Earning a college degree results in substantially increased lifetime income. An advanced degree, such as an MBA, a JD or a master’s degree, irrefutably demonstrates the phenomenon.

The path to advanced degrees almost always begins in the middle class and is rarely traveled by poor and working class people. We have to stop thinking about education’s transformative process solely in undergraduate and graduate degree terms. Public policy should be driven by two goals: improving immediate family circumstance and creating a multigenerational strategy that expands rather than shrinks the middle class.

Reducing wealth accumulation among the bottom 50% of income earners creates a downward-spiraling, limiting economic cycle. Getting out of poverty requires a first rate public education and clear, supportive steps engaging family services. It’s not one or the other; it’s both.

Wrap-around services broadly refers to service delivery models that try to bring related family and community support services together in a single facility. The goal is increasing program effectiveness and efficiency. It’s the idea of shopping on a well-developed main street or at a mall rather than a bunch of individual stores, scattered across town. In an educational context, wrap around services refers to seeing the school facility as a literal and a figurative community center. Bringing family services to the school is an efficient, effective strategy for maximizing program outcomes while achieving less educational and family disruption.

This is not a new idea. The Settlement House Movement is probably the best know exemplar. Beginning in Great Britain in the mid-19th century and rapidly carrying over to the United States, Settlement Houses attempted to address systemic poverty by providing site-based family and community services directly in low income neighborhoods. Hull House, started by social activists Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr in Chicago, is the most widely known. It lasted from 1889 until 2012.

I don’t want to oversell the parallels between the Settlement House Movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries and today’s school site-based service delivery but they flow from the same insight and spirit. It’s the idea of helping people where they live, meeting them on their terms and on their turf. Because we require children’s primary and secondary education and we generously fund it, kids are reliably found in schools. Let’s help kids and their families where it’s easiest to reach them; at the school site. Helping families helps all of us.

Wherever you live in Minnesota, your school can do more to build a wrap-around service component. But, you have to let policy and organizational leaders know that you value and support this learning and schooling policy objective. Even the schools traveling furthest along the wrap-around service path, and I’m specifically tipping my hat to St Paul Public Schools’ John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, can do more.

Rural Minnesota communities face a particular challenge as people move from small towns into regional cities. The wrap-around service model works as equally well in Marshall or Montevideo as it does in Minneapolis because every community struggles to leverage public dollars to greatest effect. In very small towns, that means seriously contemplating consolidating all public functions in to a single facility. The school building, maybe now half empty, can also house city government, a sheriff’s substation, the public vehicle maintenance shop, a community center and the library, all while delivering a strong K-12 education. It’s the new version of the one-room country school.

Minnesota’s future is predicated on creating the strongest and most capable workforce that we’ve ever produced. Only exceptionally capable, effective public schooling gets us there. The schooling models developed, implemented and experienced during the 20th century created extraordinary prosperity and growth. Now, Minnesota must build on that tradition, doing more and doing it even better. It won’t be easy. It won’t be cheap. But, it will be rewarding for kids, families and communities.

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    John Van Hecke's picture
    John Van Hecke

    John Van Hecke is the executive director of Minnesota 2020.