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Houston Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative Stresses Integration of Services While Helping Students

Photo: Image of a backpack on the steps.Several years ago, a fifth-grade student at a Houston, TX, elementary school began acting out in her classroom. The 12-year-old from Central America became overly aggressive with teachers, refused to complete her homework, and changed from a cheerful girl into a sullen one.

What students, teachers, and counselors did not know was that "Cindy" had been sexually abused by her stepfather for 6 years and had recently reported the abuse. Her stepfather had been arrested, and her family was in turmoil. A few days later, despondent and suffering in silence, she attempted suicide.

The Family Service Center—a then recently implemented program of the Houston Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative—went to work quickly, referring Cindy to a local psychiatric hospital where she received inpatient treatment. Because of the integrated services provided through the SS/HS initiative, Cindy, her mom, and her brother received outpatient individual and family counseling and group therapy.

Helping Students and Families

The Houston SS/HS initiative—begun in 1999 with a $6-million Federal grant-helped the family to heal. Cindy's behavior at school improved dramatically, and she graduated from the sixth grade. The Houston Communities in Schools program continues to provide support and guidance to Cindy at her new middle school.

This success story is one of many for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) (www.houstonisd.org), the Nation's sixth largest district, serving more than 210,000 students. While its SS/HS funding ended in 2002, the Houston initiative now sustains itself with a variety of Federal and local grants and in-kind services.

The Communities in Schools program was not the only program that HISD and their community partners implemented to serve students and their families. Other programs were developed around a wide range of needs with the goal of making schools safer and helping kids to succeed. These programs included Assault on Truancy, a partnership with the Houston Area Urban League, local businesses, the City of Houston Health and Human Services, and the Riverside Clinic; Lawyers in the Schools, which implements a crime curriculum designed by the Texas attorney general's office; and Gang-Free Communities, a community partnership to reduce the likelihood of students joining gangs.

During the first several years of their grant, evaluators from the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston found that the initiative was having measurable positive effects in the community. Substance abuse and violent behaviors among elementary students fell significantly; negative perceptions of problems within the schools and community declined (e.g., violence, gangs, weapons, drugs, and crime); and absenteeism due to safety concerns decreased significantly.

Targeting Support and Services

Photo: Image of a woman helping a girl study. HISD spans a 300-square-mile area with a growing population of nearly 250,000 students. Approximately half of its students are Hispanic/Latino, and nearly one-third are African American. More than 75 percent of the student population meets Federal criteria for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than 25 percent have limited English proficiency.

The Safe and Healthy Community Network, just one of several programs made possible by the Houston SS/HS grant, provided support and services to approximately 24,000 students in 20 schools that fed into 2 of the district high schools, Yates and Austin. Both schools had students with an increased risk of violence and other factors that impeded success.

The Community Network program proved to be a success in the Yates and Austin "feeder" patterns (the elementary and middle schools that students attend before moving on to these high schools). As a result, parts of the Community Network program were introduced into a third feeder pattern for Wheatley High School, bringing services to more than 11,000 mostly African American and Hispanic students in northeast Houston.

"I have a personal stake in this community," said project director Debra Walker, who graduated from Wheatley High. "I also have a sense of grief because the area needs so much: truancy prevention, drug and alcohol prevention, violence prevention. But I believe that, together, we are making an impact."

Sustaining and Expanding Services

Students, schools, and communities within the Wheatley feeder pattern now have access to the Safe and Healthy Community Network—a collaborative of 20 educational, mental health, juvenile justice, faith-based, law enforcement, and social services—all under one umbrella. The Community Network's foundation grew out of the SS/HS philosophy: comprehensive services coming together to provide not only for the school but also for the community.

"The community was wary at first; they were used to social service grant programs that promised many things but then went away," Ms. Walker said. "Once the community experienced the results of the initiative—less truancy in the schools, greater resources for parents and students—they were more trusting of our efforts and felt empowered to make positive changes for themselves."

From the outset, the Houston SS/HS initiative aimed to create a seamless case management system with culturally competent, accessible, and coordinated services for children and families.

For instance, a family served by the local United Way's Target Hunger program may be provided groceries, but the child still may not come to school regularly. In this case, a school official would connect with Target Hunger staff members, who then would connect with a social service provider. The provider may discover other issues keeping the child from attending school (e.g., no electricity in the home or illness within the family). The provider would share this pertinent information with partner agencies, and together, they would develop workable solutions for the student and family.

Secrets of Success

Photo: Image of a boy reading a book. While the current funding is only a fraction of HISD's original SS/HS grant amount, the initiative draws from several other Federal and local funding streams and many in-kind services made possible because of the relationships forged among the SS/HS grant partners and other community stakeholders.

HISD's continued success is based, in part, on employing leaders from within the communities they serve. These leaders have years of experience working in and with the schools in the feeder patterns, the community, and social and faith-based organizations. Also, from the initiative's inception, broad-based efforts were put in place to publicize the community and social service resources already existing within the feeder pattern or nearby. The challenge was not that there were no social and community services in the initiative, but that there was no case management provided for individual students.

The leadership of HISD believes that implementing genuine and long-lasting educational and social reforms at schools requires working with the whole student, rather than just focusing on academic deficiencies. The key to this philosophy was successful "connectivity." The initiative funneled resources into computer technology so that the participating agencies could communicate and share information with each other.

Measuring Success

The University of Texas Health Science Center was brought into the fold early during HISD's SS/HS grant cycle to assist community partners in documenting the services they provided and in using the results to improve their processes and delivery. The team also used technical assistance from the SS/HS Communications Team to design and integrate a communications campaign that included Web site development, bilingual newsletters, and culturally competent marketing materials (e.g., bookmarks).

The Houston mayor's After-School Achievement Program, which provided safe, supervised programs to reduce crime by youth and improve conduct, performance, and attendance in schools, took the project's evaluation component a step further. The program went beyond providing an after-school enrichment program: Interns conducted interviews and produced a report concerning broader issues that directly affect students and families in the district (e.g., health, safety, traffic, and environmental pollution).

The program director presented the findings revealed in this part of the mayor's After-School Achievement Program to the city government. In some cases, action was taken; in others, the issues were placed on the city government's agenda. In the end, this report raised awareness that the measure of students' academic achievement and overall success goes beyond grades and attendance.

The spirit of service integration continues. The SS/HS grant award in 1999 provided HISD with the seeds for success. Today, the initiative continues to sow these seeds, cultivating collaborative relationships and systems of care from which students and the community reap lasting rewards.

  
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Last Updated on 8/29/2012