Hartford, CT, SS/HS Initiative Provides One-Stop Service for Students and Families
In 1999, Hartford Public Schools faced a serious challenge. A national survey ranked Hartford 111th out of 112 cities based on 14 quality-of-life areas, including education, health, and public safety. Moreover, Hartford was experiencing high levels of violence in its neighborhoods and persistent drug addiction among the population.
Grim statistics to be sure, but there was reason for hope. A climate survey conducted throughout Hartford's schools revealed that people maintained a positive perception of the school system, physical safety, and drug prevention. It also showed that students maintained strong, positive attitudes toward rules and responsibilities.
"The Hartford Public School System historically has been progressive, supporting innovative student services such as the first school-based pregnancy prevention program in the State as well as mental health and physical clinics in the schools. But we were losing ground due to lack of consistent funding and coordinated leadership," said MaryBeth DelGaudio, assistant program director for Hartford's Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative.
In 2003, Hartford Public Schools was awarded a 3-year, $8.4-million SS/HS grant. It was the catalyst needed to bring community leaders together and regain lost ground. Building upon the community's pride in their schools and a history of innovation, Hartford's schools were poised for change.
Rich History, Troubled Present
Founded by Dutch traders in the early 1600s, Hartford is one of the oldest cities in New England. Ships set sail from Hartford to England, the West Indies, and the Far East, as the city evolved from an agricultural economy into an important trading center. Molasses, spices, coffee, and other goods were distributed around the country from warehouses in the city's thriving merchant district. The insurance industry grew there as groups of merchants began to share the risks to the sailing vessels, and insurance became a central part of the city's modern economy. Hartford continued to grow and prosper as successive waves of immigrants came to work, build, and settle in the community.
Through more recent decades, however, the city's economy changed. Hartford began to see high levels of children living in poverty among adults with increased rates of low literacy. This environment was correlated with increasing teen pregnancy, low academic achievement, high dropout rates, and vulnerability to drugs and gangs.
"Our children were running the risk of dropping out of school and continuing the intergenerational cycle of poverty, crime, violence, and self-destructive activity," said Leah O'Neill Fichtner, SS/HS senior program director.
Changing the Course
Fortunately, Hartford has a number of community-based organizations willing to serve their community's diverse population. Missing, however, was a way to identify the factors, such as substance abuse and mental health issues, preventing students and families from leading safe and healthy lives. Hartford Public Schools also lacked a method to connect them with services and agencies that can help them overcome such issues. The school system and its community partners were also without the proper funding needed to provide programs and services to all of the students and families in need of them. Nevertheless, they had a plan for working around these obstacles.
Their SS/HS grant allowed them to do this. It provided the funding and served as a catalyst to develop new and expand existing community-based services to help students rise above the barriers to learning. Through its initiative, Hartford also has developed a coordinated infrastructure of resources for youth and families to ensure that people get the support they need.
"The SS/HS grant allowed us to work with our community and families, evaluate what was already in place, and develop new partnerships and programs to fill gaps. We also needed the infrastructure that would provide early identification of at-risk children and would connect youth and their families to appropriate mental health services and support programs," said Hartford Public Schools superintendent Robert Henry.
One Stop, Many Services
The Hartford SS/HS initiative has breathed life into a variety of programs and strategies focused on preventing violence and other behaviors that can endanger schools and students. Like other SS/HS initiatives across the country, they are working to give students and families the opportunity to break the cycle of being at risk.
One of these strategies is the Student and Family Assistance Center (SFAC). These centers, centrally located in neighborhood schools, refer children and families to mental health services, substance abuse counseling, tutoring, and other services available in the city. Instead of families having to find these resources on their own, the centers provide them with a central, easy-to-locate access point to connect them with the resources they need. Each SFAC also provides a number of services directly to students, such as counseling, mentoring programs, and group therapy sessions, depending on the needs of the particular schools they serve. All centers are staffed by a coordinator who holds a master's degree in social work, along with graduate students from local universities. The majority of these graduate students are from the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, working as interns with oversight from a faculty member. These interns work with Hartford Public Schools' students in a variety of areas, such as anger management and self-esteem.
"We had to start providing the resources to address the cause of a student's behavior and stop blaming and punishing them for reacting to problems that were beyond their control," said Thomas Connolly, SFAC team leader.
True to the vision of being a one-stop service for students, each SFAC serves a variety of functions. In addition to being a counseling center itself, each center has access to all the necessary resources needed to identify at-risk students early and coordinate with service providers to ensure the student gets the appropriate support. For example, this may include referrals to school-based health centers and, as needed, to The Village for Children and Families, a local mental health care provider that offers psychiatric evaluation and monitoring, psychological assessment, managed treatment, and child and family therapy. This makes each SFAC an important resource for strengthening and developing collaborations within the community.
Hartford's SS/HS initiative also supports the Hartford Connects database system, which allows clinicians immediate access to enrollment, attendance, discipline, and academic data. This technical resource has become a critical tool in Hartford's efforts to provide comprehensive services to students. Hartford Connects provides case managers with information about the services a student receives and the partner agencies that are serving them, siblings at another school, or other family members.
This database provides an environmental scan that can identify potential underlying problems; determine whether they occur within the school, neighborhood, judicial, or health environment; and link to the best way of addressing these problems. Hartford's mayor, Eddie Perez, sees the Hartford Connects system as the foundation of the development of a city-wide coordinated support system for all children and youth.
Hartford's system is getting results. In one case, a teacher observed a 17-year-old male disrupting class by talking out of turn, making statements about fighting, and being generally distracting. During his initial evaluation with the coordinator of his school's SFAC, they observed that this student frequently interrupted classes with tantrums about his parents and other family members. When asked to elaborate, he would start talking about other things.
With this information, the student was referred to the school's mental health clinician, who ultimately referred the youth for evaluation at The Village for Children and Families. The student was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder; he was put on medication and given a full medical exam to determine if there was a physical cause of his behavior (there was not). The student's behavior stabilized within 3 weeks.
Meanwhile, the social worker at the SFAC provided counseling to the student's family and, with his parents' consent, shared with key staff the cause of the student's behavior and the diagnosed special needs. A coordinated program was established, including year-round classes and programs, ongoing counseling at the SFAC, classroom behavior monitoring, and medication at The Village for Children and Families, to help the student remain on track.
The Hartford SS/HS initiative has achieved such visibility through their innovative approach that the Public Health Committee of the Connecticut State Legislature stepped in to encourage a non-participating health care provider to implement a direct reimbursement plan with the Connecticut Department of Social Services. In this way, more students could receive necessary help while not overwhelming the school staff with paperwork necessary for the Department of Social Services to reimburse the schools and other service providers.
Hartford's SS/HS initiative also received special recognition in February 2005 for the SFAC model they implemented in their community. The leadership team from the SS/HS initiative was invited to present an overview of the SFAC model at the National Association of Secondary School Principals meeting.
Currently, Hartford's SS/HS initiative is working to sustain the innovations and the gains they have made. Their staff and partners are expanding awareness of their efforts and progress beyond the schools and into businesses and other audiences throughout the city. Once again, they will tap the local universities for interns, this time adding students in communications and social marketing to help their SS/HS initiative develop a media awareness component. Community-wide activities like their annual celebration, outreach to the local media, and orientation events at neighborhood schools will be vital since these activities help introduce residents to the range of activities and programs supported by the SS/HS initiative. Efforts like these are also intended to generate community support for the progress being made by Hartford Public Schools.
Increased collaborations with city and district stakeholders have been indispensable in creating a strong foundation for long-term sustainability. "By participating in city-wide efforts to reduce youth violence, the SS/HS team of service providers and community organizers has developed a system of communication and involvement that will influence implementation of programs and services long after SS/HS funding has ended," said Ms. O'Neill Fichtner.