Penn GSE professor helps author first national guidelines for Integrated Student Support

July 13, 2022

Released this month, the national guidelines for Integrated Student Support offer a starting point for dialogue and decision-making around how to take on issues like hunger, housing and mental health – obstacles that prevent students from getting the most out of school.

The COVID-19 pandemic shook up the way we think about schooling, introducing new variables to an always shifting setting. But many of the problems that were around before the pandemic have returned to the classroom alongside students. COVID-19 has exacerbated these problems and heightened the public’s awareness of them.

"In policy, so much hinges on the moment, on the context, on the political will, and on what people want to see public investments going toward," says Penn GSE Assistant Professor A. Brooks Bowden, who worked on the new set of national guidelines for Integrated Student Support. "Because of the pandemic, the public learned more about the level of hardship many families and kids are facing, and the importance of serving kids holistically.”

Bowden leads Penn GSE’s Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), which joined a working group led by Boston College’s Mary E. Walsh Center for Thriving Children. The working group’s leading experts and practitioners partnered  to provide schools, districts, and policy makers with resources to address a slate of new and renewed problems. It brought together occasionally competing models — such as City ConnectsBARR, and Communities In Schools — and drew from their collective learnings. 

The standards underscore the importance of considering both the essential and the extracurricular, making sure basic needs are met — food, shelter, physical and mental health — as well as providing creative outlets and mentorship. "It’s hard to learn if you’re hungry," Bowden says, "and you can't really be part of school and engage with learning if internally you are facing crisis, or if you don’t have enough outlets to develop your interests."

When it comes to food, for example, the pandemic revealed just how important school lunch can be to a student's life. Some schools delivered food to homes, while others hosted brown bag pickup sites. When students returned to school, they received universal free meals funded by the federal government — a plan that expired on June 30. Bowden thinks the conversation around food is much more promising than it was before the pandemic. The new guidelines don’t provide hard-and-fast solutions about issues like food. Instead, they help schools and districts pose these questions and start on a path to solve problems. 

A theme of Integrated Student Support is that services need to be intentional, systematic, and preventative. "It's not just crisis management," Bowden says. "It can be more integrated into schools. It’s a way to prevent crises from continuing to occur in the future, rather than just trying address fires as they come up." 

The services also need to be monitored to measure their effectiveness. The new guidelines emphasize linking these isolated resources, or at least making them aware of each other.

Bowden got her master's degree in the Education Policy program, where she now teaches, and she did her Ph.D. at Columbia University, where she supported the CBSCE and worked with the founder, Henry Levin. Bowden returned to Penn GSE in 2019 to join the standing faculty. The renowned center moved to Penn under her leadership in 2021, as Levin retired.