Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

At what stage of implementing Integrated Student Supports (ISS) is your school?

When students get the right supports that meet their various needs, they are better able to learn. A systematic approach to coordinating services can help schools tailor the supports they provide so every student has the right mix of services for them.

What is the practice of “Integrated Student Supports?”

Integrated student supports (ISS) is an emerging educational approach that works to improve students’ academic outcomes by systematically supporting their academic and non-academic needs. Schools implementing ISS, also known as community schools, take a whole-child approach and provide wrap-around supports to address students’ barriers to learning in a data-driven manner. ISS programs provide students with additional supports and opportunities to learn, and they are more prevalent within low-income elementary, middle, and high schools (Moore et al., 2017).  

While ISS implementation looks different in every school and community, schools implementing ISS share five common components: needs assessments, student support coordination, community partnerships, data tracking, and integration of the model into the school setting (Moore et al., 2014; 2017). Schools use needs assessments to figure out students’ needs, for both universal prevention services and for targeted services for a subset of students who may need additional supports. Schools then coordinate a wide range of supports for students, which may include behavioral health services, housing supports, mentoring, and childcare, among many others. Some services may be provided by the school, while others are provided through community partnerships. Throughout implementation, regularly collected data are used to guide implementation and monitor outcomes. Over time, this whole-child approach towards students becomes integrated into the school culture.

ISS practices were designed to be implemented in-person. However, the core components of ISS can be implemented virtually, including conducting virtual needs assessment, coordinating supports with online communication, building community partnerships, tracking data, and integrating supports into school culture. The largest challenge of implementing ISS virtually may be delivering the supports to students.

Schools can align ISS implementation with other existing frameworks and practices they are implementing. For example, many schools and districts are implementing multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), Response to Intervention (RTI), Integrated Systems Framework (ISF), trauma sensitive practices and/or social emotional learning to coordinate and guide supports for a more effective and efficient system of social emotional and behavioral health in schools.  Often the frameworks and practices overlap with ISS. Together, ISS and one or more of these other frameworks and practices can enhance each other’s core features, better integrating supports and promoting wellness.

How does ISS impact students?

An emerging body of research has found that students in schools implementing ISS tend to have better attendance, grades, test scores, and graduation rates than their peers (Heers et al., 2016; Moore et al., 2014; 2017; Wasser Gish, 2019). A subset of this research, however, has found no relationship between ISS and academic outcomes (Moore et al. 2014; 2017), and the conditions under which ISS is effective are not well understood. It may be difficult to implement community partnerships, for example, in communities where there are not existing resources to refer students to for services.

ISS has been examined as a potential strategy to address disparities in academic outcomes resulting from persistent inequities in educational opportunity for students of color. In one study, Black students attending Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools implementing ISS had significantly higher math test scores among elementary and middle school students and English and Language Arts test scores among elementary school students than students who did not attend the schools (Dobbie & Fryer, 2011).

How are school districts implementing ISS?

To help better understand how this emerging approach works in practice, we talked with officials from Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education. Leaders in the two states conceptualize the relationship between ISS other educational reform efforts that focus on the whole child differently.

In Pennsylvania, initiatives like trauma-informed care and MTSS have helped educators recognize the need for ISS. By recognizing the complexities involved with trauma, for example, educators understand that students may need supports outside of the classroom: “the conversation that's been happening around trauma-informed practices has helped to actually move this a little quicker and further because I think most educators understand that they don't necessarily understand trauma per se, and that you have to have some integration outside of … what happens in the education space” said Pam Smith, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Education at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

In Washington, ISS is used as a unifying framework to organize the connections among many different practices and approaches to addressing students’ non-academic needs. Mona Johnson, the Director of Student Supports for Washington state said, “The more we can coalesce around building the connections among [SEL, MTSS, trauma-sensitive practice, discipline practices, etc.] and support of the whole child, the better. And that’s one of the best things we can do to prevent initiative fatigue with all of these acronyms floating around in the world. And again, ISS, when you look at the core of what it is and its components, really all of these things fit in and around and among ISS.” In fact, Washington has codified ISS. In 2016, Washington state passed a law aimed at reducing opportunity gaps across the state, with ISS as one of its tenets.

The two states also help support ISS efforts throughout their state in different ways.

Washington’s 2016 law mandated the development of an ISS protocol to outline the essential practices for implementing ISS in the state. Washington state has supported this transition from policy to practice with a virtual meeting group and multiple in-person conferences. The virtual working group has met monthly for almost two years and serves as a community of practice for districts and schools implementing ISS. Washington has also hosted a series of large-scale conferences where schools and districts who are leading the way showcase their practices and share what is working for them. The virtual working group and conference combination has been well-received, according to Johnson: “You have the conferences with the big bang of learning, but then you have the continued booster shots of the [community of practice] via the virtual connection, and then of course TA and outreach to the office all the time, but those are the kinds of things that make the work come alive at the local level.”

In Pennsylvania, the state supports local ISS efforts by setting expectations for collaboration and removing barriers to cross-sectoral partnerships from the highest levels down.  Smith explains: “Our role…[is] creating the conditions within which that work can happen at the local level, and removing barriers so they can be successful there to do that… It infiltrates in terms of how we’re developing policy…at the state level or encouraging folks at the local level to develop policy, … how we’re designing technical assistance and resources and support.” This work is done within a regional structure so that local conditions and challenges are known and can be taken into account. In one case, a health clinic’s billing structure was adjusted so that providers could sustainably remain in the school.

Both states emphasized that implementing ISS involves a lot of systems-level thinking and change that comes with challenges. Nevertheless, Johnson emphasized that Washington state is committed to seeing ISS through as a strategy: “If we can hold the belief that it’s going to benefit kids and communities for the long-term, and the evidence tell us it is, then we have to keep that focus in mind and not let it become the de jure thing we see happen all the time in education.”


This blog was developed by NCSSLE partner, Child Trends, lead author Renee Ryberg, with input from Kristen Harper. We would also like to thank the state officials that contributed, including Martin Mueller, Assistant Superintendent of Student Engagement and Support, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction; Mona Johnson, Director of Student Supports, Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction; and Pam Smith, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Education, Pennsylvania Department of Education. 

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