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7 Things Public Schools Do Besides Teach Kids Academic Basics


By Samantha Keppler, University of Michigan Ross School of Business

With schools closed due to COVID-19, communities are scrambling to provide students with meals and supplies and meet other needs. For education researcher Samantha Keppler, these closures offer a chance to reflect on the many services besides teaching children English, math and other core subjects that schools provide.

1. Food

The National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program provide school meals to at least 30 million kids each year – more than half of all public school students. This food is free or deeply discounted for students who qualify based on their family’s income. These meals are essential for many reasons, including the fact that hunger and food insecurity make it harder for students to focus. Without consistent daily meals, students lack the energy to participate and get stressed out about when they will eat next. Though free or reduced school meals are meant to help low-income students, some states like Vermont, with funding from nonprofits, serve them to all studentsEvery child can focus better when they have enough to eat.

2. Health care

Many other health issues besides hunger can obstruct learning. That is why many schools work closely with local hospitals and community clinics. For instance, Mobile Care provides asthma and dental care to Chicago Public Schools students, dispatched through visits by personnel who travel around the city in a van on a regular schedule. Vision to Learn, another nonprofit with mobile clinics, shuttles its vans around many districts across the country, such as Dover, Delaware and Atlanta, Georgia. It gives students eye exams and glasses for free.

3. Counseling

Teachers often notice when something is troubling their students. And students are more likely to seek out mental health care at school than at community clinics. Yet schools are often ill-equipped to deal with student mental health on their own. Some programs are volunteer-driven initiatives, like Girls on the Run, a program that both helps girls become better runners and trains them to become more self-confident – along with other life management skills. Other programs help schools access more counseling services, such as United Stand, which provides free counseling to low-income Catholic schools in Chicago, so to help students develop healthy ways of coping with trauma.

4. School supplies

Some kids not only have no books of their own, they lack the basics all students need – paper, pencils and calculators. Because schools themselves often don’t bridge this gap, teachers often tackle this challenge on their own. The average teacher shells out about US$500 of their own money on classroom supplies. Another popular way teachers pay for these supplies is crowdfunding through DonorsChoose, a website founded 20 years ago that has funded about half a million projects, including requests for tables and chairs. As one teacher told The Washington Post, “I am a scavenger.”

5. Physical activity

Students move around a lot at school. In the gym, yes, but also in the classroom. Teachers regularly use physical movement to boost learning, such as by taking stretch or jumping-jacks breaks. Schools also work closely with programs that use exercise to aid social development, such as Dancing Classrooms, a program based in New York City that teaches kids ballroom dancing. The number of kids taking part in team sports at school is declining but still includes nearly 8 million high school students and millions more children in elementary and middle school. All students also effortlessly get some exercise throughout the school day, while walking between classrooms, playing at recess and, to varying degrees, from walking or biking to school or at least to a bus or train stop.

6. The arts

Whether it’s playing in bands, singing in choirs, painting or acting in plays, music, drama and art are group experiences had in school. Sometimes teachers lead these efforts alone, but increasingly schools are connecting teachers and students to professional musicians, artists, playwrights, actors and other arts leaders. For example, the San Francisco Symphony has a partnership with the San Francisco Unified School District. The partnership involves in-school performances, as well as instruments and sheet music. Another exemplary model is the Chicago Arts Partnership for Education which places resident artists in Chicago schools.

7. Social work

Many schools keep their finger on the pulse of their students and families: what challenges they face and what they need. In some cases, schools also support parents through tough times. Because school funding is for students, not their parents, schools connect parents to nonprofits and in some cases build long-run relationships with nonprofits to fund and run programs such as free computer and English courses that help parents provide for their kids. For example, Detroit Public Schools Community District operates a Parent Academy that offers free classes on everything from dealing with family trauma to starting your own business.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

Samantha Keppler is an assistant professor of technology and operations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.