Support Teachers To Support Students

Just how much of an impact does poverty have on a student’s education?  According to a national survey of teachers, 88 percent say poverty is a barrier to learning in their classrooms. These teachers report impacts such as chronic absenteeism (you can’t teach an empty seat!), disruptive behavior and poor student health as examples of the ripple effects of poverty in education. Teachers are going above and beyond to address these issues but a key question becomes what are we doing to support teachers?

More than 52% report they have helped a student or their family through a crisis.  What’s more, 54% have used their own money to help students facing food insecurity,  49% have helped students get new clothing or shoes, and more than one-third have helped a student to receive medical attention

According to the same survey, teachers report spending 20% of their time — the equivalent of one day per week – helping students through these issues.   In an environment where school resources are already stretched, failure to support teachers is a cost we cannot afford.

Teachers are doing their best to help.  But have we reached a point where teachers are helping too much?

Teachers welcome the support: 92% of those surveyed “favor organizations or individuals working inside the school to help kids with non-academic needs.”

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), there are over 24,000 students who are experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts.   An estimated 13 percent of children in Massachusetts live in poverty. For students who are English Language Learners, communication barriers can exacerbate the impacts of housing and food insecurity.  According to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, the number of English Language Learners has nearly doubled from 45,500 in 1998 to 90,200 in 2017.  Added to teacher’s plates:  an increasing need to not only teach English and Science, but to equip their students with the 21st-century skills they will need to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce.

It’s United Way mission to bring cross-sector partnerships to bear on tough problems like this. We are working in several communities to increase collaboration between districts, nonprofits, companies, and philanthropy.  Here’s a look at some of the programs that are fueling teacher-student success.

Bridging The Gap

“We have many students and families struggling with housing instability,” says Tracey Scherrer, McKinney-Vento Homeless Liaison for Lynn Public Schools. “The families that we work with often feel defeated and strained, and we want the student’s school to be a source of stability.”

Each year in the City of Lynn, nearly 1,200 children in public schools are identified as homeless.

RISE is a partnership between United Way, Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development and the Lynn Public School District. Launched in 2014 with funding from the Siemer Institute and United Way, dedicated case managers work with families as a unit to find the best solutions for everyone. Results thus far are promising.  Last year, RISE was able to ensure 98% of the children served avoided a disruptive move to a new school mid-year.

“Teachers and school staff are really on the forefront of our school system,” Scherrer says. They have relationships with families and bonds with the students. Through these connections, we are able to better understand when a family is in need of assistance outside of the classroom.  Being able to provide wrap-around services to a family in need has really enabled us to bridge the gap between our schools and community providers, which allows for more of our students to be more engaged in their school work and succeed academically.”

Lynn isn’t the only community recognizing that students’ lives and their access to resources outside school hours directly impacts readiness to learn. In Attleboro, an exciting team has emerged called Be Heard, which is allowing the school community to hear from students and families with lived experience with homelessness and other educational barriers and to make programming and policy changes that make education more accessible.

“Attleboro Be Heard is a diverse coalition of educators, parents, students, and community members working together to increase community engagement, improve the Attleboro Public Schools, and actively listen to all voices to enhance our role as the center of the Attleboro community,” says Laurie Regan, Assistant Superintendent of Attleboro Public Schools.



In Lynn, Salem and Gloucester, United Way’s team of 30 AmeriCorps Members are deployed in schools and community-based organizations to support the social-emotional and academic needs of over 1,200 English learners in grades K-12, both during the school day and out of school time. Their presence also helps to support teachers in both academic and non-academic ways.

“The AmeriCorps members help provide emotional and instructional support for our very diverse English Language Learner population,” says Rachel Miller, ESL Teacher at Witchcraft Elementary School in Salem.  “They work directly with students to complete assignments, explain concepts and reinforce skills. They also help students navigate complex social situations and act as cultural liaisons in classrooms.”

Lori Horsman, an ELL Teacher at Collins Middle School in Salem says the AmeriCorps members “give invaluable support to our English Language Learners (ELLs) in countless ways.  It is impossible to provide an exhaustive list but some of their activities include assisting teachers in the classroom by taking small groups for focused lessons, participating in Common Planning Time with the ELL Department, monitoring the hallways during MCAS to escort students to the restrooms or to allow them a walk break, and being a familiar, friendly, caring individual to whom our newcomers can turn to for support.”

Last year, 89 percent of English Language Learner students served by United Way’s North Shore AmeriCorps program said the program helped them to do better in school.  82 percent reported that they were more confident in the English skills and 75 percent felt a greater sense of belonging to their community. The program is a partnership of United Way, the Massachusetts Service Alliance and the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service.

“The AmeriCorps members are a huge resource,” adds Emily Ullman, Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships at Salem Public Schools.  “They make meaningful connections with our students and offer them not just academic support and guidance but act as mentors too. We are so lucky to have them!”

Preparing A Way Forward

In addition to the demands they face supporting the non-academic needs of their students, schools and educators are also increasingly focusing efforts on preparing students for careers of the future.  Jeff Riley, Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, recently placed a priority on connecting students to relevant learning opportunities beyond the classroom, such as internships, community-based learning, innovation pathways, early college, and vocational education. In his recently released roadmap for K-12 education “Our Way Forward,” he wrote:

“These experiences break down the barriers separating education from work, enabling students to further build their skills and apply their growing expertise in real-world settings.  And they support students in building their emerging identities, better preparing them to map their own pathways to higher education and employment.”

Last month, as part of United Way’s BoSTEM initiative, teachers from Boston Public Schools participated in one-week STEM “externship” experiences, exposing them to STEM careers and giving them knowledge to share with students.  The externships also fostered relationships between the teachers and the industry professionals, which they can leverage during the school year and build upon to invite STEM professionals to their classrooms for demonstrations, schedule field trips, and develop deeper partnerships.

“If we don’t create these opportunities for students, who will?” said Megan Lewis, a high school teacher at  Boston Public Schools.