Key Takeaways

• Many Arizona students face adverse childhood experiences outside of school that impact how they learn inside of school.
• Wrap-around service personnel, such as counselors, special education teachers, nurses and more, are crucial to student success.
• Schools and districts do not receive enough funding to maintain a full roster of specialists who are capable of meeting the needs of the whole student.
• Investments in such services has tremendous positive impacts on individual students, school culture and the community.


Tomorrow morning, one in five Arizona children will wake up unsure of whether they’ll have food to eat in their home. One in ten will face life with a disability. Half will have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, or trauma.

When kids enter their school building each day, they don’t leave these challenges on the doorstep, and it impacts how they learn. Funding hasn’t kept pace with the myriad needs today’s students face, which leaves schools spending far more on student services than they receive via per pupil funding from the state.

Wrap-around services, as they are often called, encompass a wide variety of specialties, including:

– Special education (special education teachers and assistants, speech-language pathologists, physical and occupational therapists, nurses, interpreters, intervention specialists, etc.)
– Gifted education
– School nurses
– Social workers
– Counselors
– Psychologists
– Student Resource Officers (SROs)

Increasing investments in wrap-around services is one of seven short-term priorities identified in the Roadmap for P-20 Education Funding. To help more youth be successful, Arizona must scale up programs that support the success of every student based on each individual’s needs.

Educating youth with special needs

Phoenix Union High School District is one of the largest districts in the state. Each of the district’s 11 campuses is host to a full special education department. This includes a facilitator, psychologist, counselor and professionals who help with life skills and job placement. Each campus team works with students who have a wide range of abilities. Some may simply need extra assistance with math, while others may be medically fragile or be working through serious behavioral issues. Beyond the specially-trained educators, classrooms require aides and can even need nurses, interpreters or other assistance.


Read More: Special Education Funding Needs Through the Eyes of an Exceptional Teacher


In younger grades, schools not only provide services to students with disabilities – they also work to identify any special needs as well as the appropriate services. School psychologists are particularly helpful here – when a child is identified as potentially having a learning disability, the school psychologist works with them to diagnose those issues and refer for specialty interventions, as needed. Finding, and compensating, enough qualified staff can be a challenge, but many districts struggle even more with identifying bilingual professionals who can test and aid students who are English-language learners.

After the diagnosis, schools remain responsible for students. Smaller school districts may only have one or two students who need intensive services, so they’re outsourced, at great expense. But even large districts struggle. For instance, Arizona’s largest district, Mesa Public Schools, has a large population of special needs youth. They’ve estimated the cost of educating those children at $77 million, yet receive only $44 million to do so. One researcher estimates that Arizona’s special education population is underfunded by $100 million. School districts are required by law to provide these services to disabled youth until age 22, which means that any funding shortfall impacts the entire student population as dollars are taken from other parts of a district’s budget make up the difference.

Keeping students on track to the next step

Having a counselor on campus has long been the norm in schools, but years’ worth of budget cuts have required scaling back, and many individual counselors now cover more than one campus. In Arizona, the student counselor ratio is 905:1, a far cry from the suggested ratio (250:1) or even the national average (455:1).


Read More: How School Counselors Help Support Student Success


While nonprofits and grant-based programs are helping to fill the gap, these temporary solutions aren’t feasible in the long-term. In Cochise County, a combination of scholarships and college navigators embedded in local high schools is helping to boost the local college-going and attainment rate.

GEAR UP Arizona uses national grant funding to connect with seventh graders in high-needs school districts and stays with them for the next six years. Their work helps youth stay on-track academically on the path to college and career. Thousands of students all over Arizona have benefited from their work, which drastically improves these students’ rate of graduation.

In younger grades, Northern Arizona University’s Foster Grandparent Program is funded by a federal grant. Foster Grandparents are placed in neighborhood schools where they can have the most impact, assisting at least 15 hours per week in preschool through third grade classrooms. Among the hundreds of students served, 92 percent improvement in academic performance and 100 percent improved social development skills.

Assisting students who live in poverty

Particularly for students from low income backgrounds, these wraparound services are critical to their learning process. Many do not have basic needs met in the home and mobility is high. For instance, Osborn School District’s student population hovers around 3,000 students. But in a given academic year, they will serve more than 5,000. In a district where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, these frequent moves take a toll on learning. Many areas of the state have also seen sharp increases in homelessness.

Teachers cannot be expected to address these myriad challenges alone. Having a child psychologist, counselor, and social worker employed in these situations is vital to students’ mental health and their academic growth. Schools of today aren’t just educating youth, they’re full family social service agencies, working to lift entire communities. For instance, Phoenix Union High School District maintains open schools year-round, giving youth a place to learn, engage, eat, play and stay safe. Many others maintain free sports, after-school programs, and summer school. But when funding only covers a 9-month school year, how will they continue this mission?

Many districts, especially large ones, staff positions that aren’t direct teaching roles. But these critical team members are having a substantial impact on students, and teachers wouldn’t be successful without them. Leadership at Phoenix Union estimates that as much as 50 percent of their budget is consumed just getting kids to school ready to learn – bus transportation, food, social-emotional support, instructional support and more.

Schools that invest in wrap-around services, such as math and reading specialists, counselors, and more, see a substantial improvement in school climate. Student attendance improves and behavior issues decrease, while academic achievement rises. In turn, the student achievement gap shrinks, and more first-generation students pursue higher education.


Read More: Mapping Arizona’s path to success – the teacher variable