How Schools Are Becoming the New Safety Nets for New Hampshire's Neediest Students

May 31, 2016

When David Griffin started teaching middle school in Berlin more than three decades ago, he thought he knew what to expect. He never imagined that stocking a food pantry might be part of the job.

Sure, Griffin says, he always anticipated a few needy kids in each class. But in the past few years, especially, the number of students who need help — and the complexity of their needs — seems greater than ever.

There was the student who showed up one Monday morning and mentioned she’d only had one meal all weekend. That sent Griffin scrambling to set up a food pantry tucked discreetly inside the teachers’ lounge on first floor.

Then there are the students who show up in the same clothes, day after day, because their families can’t afford new ones. Or the ones whose home lives are wracked with instability because of a relative’s drug addiction.

Griffin, who’s retiring at the end of this school year, can’t blame these students for tuning out — or acting out — during his history lessons.

“If you ask a kid to come in here and learn about Pericles of Ancient Greece, well, that doesn’t mean anything compared to the fact that 'I got four hours of sleep last night because my brother was off the wall,' ” Griffin says.

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What Griffin describes might sound alarming, but it’s by no means uncommon. In fact, what's happening inside Griffin’s classroom mirrors wider concerns felt by teachers across New Hampshire, as the effects of poverty and instability at home increasingly spill over into the school day.

The causes are well-known by this point, driven largely by the recession and the state’s opioid epidemic: not enough stable jobs, not enough affordable housing, not enough help for those trying to overcome addiction or mental health issues, not enough support for parents who might not know how to be parents.

And while these kinds of problems are found in almost every community, to some extent, the challenges are often toughest in the state’s poorer school districts. 

(Scroll down for several interactives where you can find out more about how socioeconomic challenges and other risk factors affect students across the state.)

So in districts where poverty is prevalent and community resources are scant, teachers and administrators are confronting a new kind of challenge: What do they do when their main job is to teach, but students can’t learn because their basic needs aren’t being met anywhere else?

The answer, for public schools in some of the most distressed parts of New Hampshire, has been to cobble together their own system of social supports to take the place of those that have eroded elsewhere.

"We're expanding beyond the walls of the school building... And is it really our responsibility? Well, we have the children at the forefront of our mind. And we want to change what's not working well for them."

The result is a set of in-school services that were nearly unheard of a decade ago: Food pantries and expanded meal programs that include free dinners for students. Partnerships with mental health centers and other clinics to provide checkups right on school grounds. Support groups for kids with drug-addicted parents. Yoga programs for students dealing with trauma. In Berlin, a group of teachers even pool from their own paychecks to buy clothes, shoes and other supplies for students in need.

“We’re expanding beyond the walls of the school building,” says Berlin Public Schools superintendent Corinne Cascadden. “And is it really our responsibility? Well, we have the children at the forefront of our mind. And we want to change what’s not working well for them.”

Districts are initiating these extra services with a broader goal than just helping kids get through the school day: Research has shown that stress, from poverty or other pressures at home, can limit students’ chances of succeeding academically and, ultimately, their long-term quality of life.

But all of the effort to stave off those negative consequences has required more than just extra elbow grease — it also requires extra money. And as schools are taking on more responsibilities beyond academics, they haven’t always been able to count on financial help from the state or local taxpayers.

In the meantime, schools rely heavily on grants from the federal government or private donations — which are temporary in nature — or the generosity of teachers like Griffin willing to stretch beyond their traditional job descriptions.

Click each photo to watch videos featuring Berlin educators talking about the changes they've seen in the level of need among students and what the district's doing to respond. For a better viewing experience on mobile, try turning your device sideways. You can also see the videos here.

When Students Become 'Collateral Damage'

For many schools, the move to provide more services to struggling students isn’t just a side project. The work is seen as a necessary part of their districts’ educational mission — and a way to prevent students’ troubled home lives from weighing down their prospects, or their communities’ quality of life, decades down the road. 

“We want all of our kids to be career and college ready, and it takes the whole social-emotional learning as a part of it,” says Cascadden, the Berlin superintendent. “In years past, our job was to educate — and yes, our jobs are to educate, but we also need to look at the whole child and support that.”

Recent work by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis adds new insight to the connection between poverty and students’ academic performance, the latest in a growing body of research to explore the link between socioeconomic factors and student outcomes.

While New Hampshire students on the whole tend to perform above-average academically, disparities within the state mirror what’s happening at a national level: Overall, schools in lower-income communities perform worse academically than those in wealthier parts of the state, according to the Stanford data. 

Explore the interactive below to see how New Hampshire schools stack up academically across income levels. For the best viewing experience on mobile, try turning your device sideways. You can also see the graphic here.

Kenneth Shores, a researcher on the Stanford study, said their findings underscore the idea that academic success depends on much more than what happens inside the classroom.

“The home environment has a lot of impact, and what our data shows is that it has some of the largest impact on academic achievement,” Shores said. “So if there are things that are not happening at the home environment, it’s kind of a policy question of, how do we make those things happen in other contexts?”

That’s just what’s happening in those New Hampshire districts where teachers have increasingly started to function like social workers. At these schools, officials say they’ve been left to deal with the consequences of a confluence of problems — economic, social and otherwise

“People often forget that the kids are, in essence, the collateral damage of everything that’s going on in our state,” says Rochester Middle School principal Adam Houghton.

In Berlin, educators point to the loss of stable middle-class jobs — like the ones that used to exist when the mills were still in town — as one of the things making it hardest for students to lead healthy lives outside the classroom. Berlin’s unemployment rate rose from 4.5 percent in 2004 to 7.4 percent in 2014. Its median household income was just over $36,000 in 2014, half the statewide average.

In Rochester and Laconia, educators point to persistent homelessness and food insecurity as some of the biggest issues where they’ve had to fill the gaps. Both Strafford and Belknap Counties, where those districts are located, have seen increases in family homelessness over the last few years, according to the New Hampshire Coalition to End Homelessness. More than half of students in Laconia’s middle and elementary schools were eligible for free or reduced lunch this year; in Rochester, the rates across all grade levels are also well above the state average.

“Some of our kids are literally getting all of their food every day in our buildings for free, or a reduced rate,” says McKenzie Harrington-Bacote, who’s helping to coordinate how Laconia School District can better address student mental health and wellness. A few years ago, Laconia School District started offering free dinner to students who participate in after-school programs, in addition to free breakfast and free lunch.

And at the same time, educators in these communities say there are fewer places to turn when a student — or a family member — needs help, especially when it comes to mental illness.

“We’re seeing a lot more kids with emotional disorders, with behavior disorders, with physical aggression,” says Amy Huter, the principal at Brown Elementary School in Berlin. Huter says she’s had to train a portion of her staff in “crisis prevention intervention” techniques, which are used to de-escalate situations where students have become verbally or physically aggressive.

And across the board, school officials say the state’s drug crisis has only exacerbated the stress on students’ shoulders.

On average, about 30 percent of New Hampshire high school students say they've lived with someone who has a drug or alcohol problem, according to the most recent New Hampshire Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Just under 15 percent of students surveyed say they’ve seen or heard domestic violence at home. About 9 percent have had a family member in jail or prison.

The weight of problems like drugs, domestic violence and mental health issues are felt across the state, of course. But these issues are even more acute in schools where poverty is also high.

The high schools reporting the highest rates of students living in a home with drug or alcohol abuse also had above-average rates of students receiving free and reduced lunch. Nine of the 10 schools with the highest rates of students attempting suicide also fit this pattern, as did nine of the 10 the high schools with the highest rate of students reporting that they’ve had a family member in jail or prison.

Where schools have traditionally been hubs for academics, Harrington-Bacote at Laconia says, they’re now undergoing a huge shift — “we are forced really to provide all kinds of supports and services for our students to even get to the academic part of it.”

Rethinking 'Student Wellness' at a State Level

So what can schools do to overcome the disadvantages faced by students from troubled homes and communities? School officials say more money to offset the costs of caring for needy students is a start, but that’s not the only piece.

This shift in schools’ roles has also meant changing the way districts train teachers, coaches and in some cases even custodians to watch for warning signs that a student might need some extra help.

Some schools are also changing the way they engage with parents. In Rochester, for example, officials recently hosted a day-long forum to educate families about substance abuse and mental health, and to connect them with local resources like the community health center or a youth homeless shelter. 

“When I went to school, teachers were there to teach. And that was the extent of it,” says Houghton, the Rochester Middle School principal. “Now, we’re almost becoming more of a community center.”

Meanwhile, in Berlin, they’re exploring the idea of starting a parent-teacher visiting program, akin to a home visiting program for new mothers, to build trust with students’ families and to improve communication between what’s going on in and outside of school.

And at a state level, policymakers are taking steps — if incrementally — to help schools through their changing responsibilities.

A few years ago, New Hampshire created a new unit within the Department of Education, the Office of Student Wellness, as a way to respond to rising mental health, substance abuse and student discipline problems. The office now acts as central hub for schools, public agencies and nonprofits trying to address these issues.

“We can’t work the same way we used to work. It’s no longer working,” the office’s director, Mary Steady, said. “So we need to support the whole child — and a way that we can do that is having services at the school.”

 

"We can't work the same way we used to work. It's no longer working... So we need to support the whole child, and a way that we can do that is having services at the school."

Steady’s office is overseeing two federal grants aimed at helping six districts pilot new approaches to improving students' social and emotional well-being. The grants are poised to inject about $20 million into schools in Berlin, Rochester, Franklin, Concord, Laconia and SAU 7, covering Colebrook and Pittsburg.

In Berlin, Laconia and several other districts, the grants are providing students, teachers, coaches and other school personnel with training in “Youth Mental Health First Aid” — a program designed to help prevent and respond to mental health crises. In other cases, the money’s allowed schools to contract more closely with local mental health centers or substance abuse treatment providers, to start new nutrition and wellness programs, to put on more parent education programs and more.

But the districts who’ve benefited from this extra money also know that the funding is, by its nature, temporary.

“My concern, as with any initiative, is when this funding goes away, will we have the support of the state of New Hampshire to be able to support some of these practices, like having school-based clinicians?” says Stacey Lazzar, who’s coordinating the "Safe Schools, Healthy Students" programming in Concord School District.

There is some effort to set up more long-term solutions, at least in the area of children’s mental health. A bill to set up a more coordinated “system of care” for children’s mental health — including how it’s delivered in schools — passed both the House and Senate and is heading to the governor’s desk. The Department of Health and Human Services also recently launched a Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health, also aimed at better coordinating youth mental health services across the board.

Disconnect Between Day-to-Day Realities, Discussions at Statehouse?

Even with some of these statewide steps to address students' well being, teachers like Griffin still feel a like there's a disconnect between the talk around education policy at the State House and what educators see day by day.

"I want you to sit in my classroom for a day. Just sit. I want you to look around at the kids who come into my class... And tell me that we're doing good by them."

“It’s great to make policy if you’re standing up here somewhere,” Griffin says. "But if you’ve never been into the pits, you don’t understand where [the students are] coming from."

Some lawmakers say they do understand the extent of what schools are dealing with these days, though they, too, are skeptical that there’s a broader political will to help schools tackle more of these issues.

Before he was the Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Jeff Woodburn taught school in Coos County. In those roles, Woodburn said he saw plenty of students weighed down by poverty or other issues at home.

“As a teacher, I quickly learned that I was the most stable force in many of these kids’ lives,” Woodburn said. “I was there every day. It wasn’t anything great, it wasn’t anything big. But it was somebody who knew their names and somebody who looked them in the eye and said, ‘How’re you doing?’ ”

And over time, Woodburn said he’s also noticed a broader a shift in the money, programming and other resources that used to be put toward supporting kids outside of school.

“We are doing far less than they did when I was a kid,” Woodburn said. “Communities did engage in raising children. We had recreation programs. Today, everything’s pay to play. We had after school programs. We had a community that you could send your kids out to. There’s social pieces to it, but then there’s community investment pieces to it.”

These days, Woodburn said, it’s become all too easy for colleagues who represent more affluent parts of the state to ignore the realities of what’s happening in districts that are struggling.

“They’re not their kids,” Woodburn said. “If it was their kids, they’d take care of it.”

Here's how the financial landscape has changed over time for some of the New Hampshire districts trying new approaches to supporting students' social and economic challenges. As state aid has fallen or remained flat in recent years, local taxes have taken up a larger share of total school spending.

Sen. Nancy Stiles, a Republican from Hampton and the vice chair of the Senate education committee, spent several decades working as the nutrition director for Hampton School District. Before that, she also worked as a school bus driver.

As far back as the 1980s, Stiles recalls being told at education conferences that, one day, schools would become the de facto hubs for all kinds of services usually provided elsewhere.

“The message I was getting there is that at some point schools will be the social place for all things to take place — feeding them, make sure that they have food, three meals a day, make sure that they have access to medicine, health, make sure they have dental care, and all of that would be provided at the school,” Stiles says. “And it’s getting closer to that point.”

And, if that’s the case, Stiles — who just announced plans to retire from the Senate this year — acknowledged that the state’s current school funding model might no longer make sense.

“At some point, I’m thinking, if this does cycle through so that some of those additional services are offered to students — be it mental health or physical health or whatever — that there’ll probably have to be some allocation for that in there as well,” Stiles says.

So, Stiles says, she understands the pressure schools are under to do more than just teach. But she’s skeptical that such a change is coming anytime soon.

“Probably I’ll be dead by then,” Stiles says.

In the meantime, Griffin has an open invitation to any legislator willing to learn more about what schools and students are dealing with.

“I want you to sit in my classroom for a day. Just sit. I want you to look around at the kids who come into my class,” Griffin says. "Some are coming for hope. And some are coming because this is the safest place they know. And tell me that we’re doing good by them."