ASBURY PARK —As school districts throughout the state are being forced to make steep cuts to or eliminate mental health and counseling programs, College Achieve Asbury is investing in student mental health, expanding the role of its social workers to provide home visits and daily online wellness check-ins with students, the business said.
As students are forced to stay at home with few options for outdoor activities during the pandemic, the school’s move is paying off: 96 percent of students are attending school every day and internal assessments reveal that academic outcomes are improving during online instruction.
Since school began on Sept. 1, College Achieve Asbury’s counselors have made nearly 145 home visits. During the in-person visits, social workers are helping with problems as minor as missing school supplies to mental health concerns related to isolation.
The counselors’ visits are made with parental consent and can include trips to restaurants near Ocean Grove Beach, so they can talk about how they’re feeling.
Every student was assigned a social worker at the beginning of the year, whom they meet with at regularly scheduled check-ins between 2-4 p.m. every day. These “office hours” give students a chance to share concerns or issues they are facing in a private and respectful way.
“As a community, we know the challenges that many of our families face when school isn’t open for in-person instruction,” Jodi McInerney, executive director and principal of the school, said. “There is a long list of challenges to making remote instruction work and a public health crisis like this can be confusing and isolating. We are focused on doing the best we can to make sure every student here knows they have someone to talk to, someone who cares deeply about them and their education.”
The social worker visits are just part of a comprehensive system of wraparound services to support students and families during distance learning that includes meal delivery and communication protocols to guide teachers in identifying and supporting students—most of whom are from households living below the poverty line.
At a time when these services are more important than ever, Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed 2020-2021 budget initially cut nearly $12 million from “School Linked Services” provided by the state Department of Children and Families.
College Achieve implemented a reporting system for teachers to raise concerns about individual students they interacted with during online lessons. Teachers who note absent students or students struggling with any issues—from missing school supplies, to not enough sleep, to a lack of clean laundry—use a dedicated email address to send updates to the school’s three full-time social workers. If the issue requires, the social workers conduct a home well-being check.
One teacher, for example, noticed a student had been wearing the same pajamas for three days in a row, so they alerted a social worker who visited the student and helped them do laundry.
McInerney says their planning and wraparound supports have produced the results they had hoped: Since beginning remote instruction on September 1, the average daily attendance rate has been 96 percent. College Achieve Asbury students receive five hours of synchronous remote instruction with a teacher each day, and each student was provided with the tools required to attend class every day, including a computer, wi-fi and basic school supplies.
ANet testing in the spring revealed that math averages increased 11% during online instruction, ELA averages increased 16% and students at all grade levels performed better in June 2020 than they did on the end-of-year assessment in June 2019 during in-person instruction.
“This is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. There is so much pressure on our students and families and it is our duty to do as much as we can to carry them through these challenging times,” said Michael Piscal, CEO and founder of College Achieve Public Schools. “You can’t learn if you’re hungry, if you don’t have the technology and if you’re sad. But if you’re able to provide these basic necessities and supports while keeping expectations high, students rise up and meet those high standards.”
College Achieve Asbury’s plan provides students and families with multiple touch points with school staff. After surveying families last spring, the school heard from parents that their children often relied on the two free meals provided by College Achieve Asbury. McInerney decided to continue this free meal program over the summer—delivering more than 21,060 meals to more than 200 families since June 30.
“They are looking out for us, for our kids,” says Shanae Henderson, a parent of a 9th grade College Achieve student. “I start work early in the morning and when my son slept in and missed his first class, the school’s social worker came to the house to wake him up. Now, he’s attending every class and feels good about school because he knows people care.”