Leadership magazine logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Building safe spaces
Five steps for building a healthy and safe school system for students and families
By Marco Villegas, Virginia Kelsen and Dora Soto-Delgado | May | June 2023
Imagine coming to school having experienced the unimaginable loss of a parent or a sibling and having had to deal with the isolation resulting from the pandemic. Imagine feeling the stress of knowing about the many mass shootings in the United States, wondering whether your school will be next or knowing a close friend has died from fentanyl poisoning. To say nothing of wondering about your future in a changing world, and wondering where you will fit and become successful.
These and many more stressors are the types of issues that every student growing up in the U.S. is now faced with. Gone are the days of worrying only about grades or whether your team will win the next game. Instead, demands on students’ well-being have added another dimension to schooling. It is now incredibly important to be able to support and deal with the growing concerns that students bring to school with them every day.
The El Rancho Unified School District has consistently been at the forefront of providing supportive services and safe spaces for students. We have learned how to provide effective wrap-around services to support all students, especially those who need them the most. The district responded to the need through the development and support of school-based services, implementation of an intake system, reporting opportunities to prevent at-risk behavior and collaboration with others. There is no one answer to respond to this reality; however, staff and community partners have banded together to increase the likelihood that students will go beyond surviving and thrive as resilient, contributing members of the community. The formula for success includes five key components:
  • Connecting to trusted mental health services.
  • Fostering community partnerships.
  • Honoring students’ cultural identities.
  • Engaging with students and families in two-way communication.
  • Remaining accountable to preserve relationships and drive toward continuous improvement.
District students have access to a wide array of traditional counseling and innovative mental health programs tied to Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. We implemented a multi-agency response to youth wellness, violence and victimization through the implementation of prevention, intervention and accountability efforts in a school-based setting. Students remain part of their school community and neighborhood while also gaining access to other resources. Offering behavioral and mental health support, a large team of mental health coordinators, mental health counselors available at each school site, behavior technicians and outreach specialists have created a trustworthy source of additional support for all. Programs they provide include substance abuse awareness and prevention, gang ideation deterrence, PBIS and various related attendance incentives. Increasing students’ abilities to thrive in the academic program, academic counselors offer guidance on making successful transitions from school level to school level and post-secondary planning. Students and families get to learn about a variety of choices for training and education programs, as counselors regularly connect students to college and careers.
The local community college has opened a campus less than a mile away from both high schools, breaking down many of the geographic or transportation-related barriers students in many communities face; additionally, the district offers adult school and Regional Occupational Program classes nearby. These services have been embedded in the fabric of our schools and are part of expected standards at each of the campuses in the district. It is fascinating to see how students and staff are so comfortable with accessing the supports needed for students.
To provide a full array of wraparound services, ERUSD consistently relies on and benefits from community partners who enhance students’ experiences in our schools through relationships forged over time and maintained through mutual communicating. As one example of a benefit gained (Epstein, et al, 2018), ERUSD maintains a system of triage for students expressing a need for support called The ACCESS Referral System, which was created for students, parents and staff to meet individually with district support staff to discuss concerns and link them to services within the school district and community. Consistent collaboration with community-based organizations such as the Los Angeles Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse, community-based mental health agencies, the L.A. County Department of Probation and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health have helped to support training and trainer-of-trainer programs to build capacity within district staff.
In early December, for example, LA CADA provided an overview of the symptoms of opioid overdose for more than 50 staff members and gave each participant a life-saving fentanyl kit to keep on hand in their office or classroom. Their team of mental health professionals has been highly influential in the design of The Oasis Wellness Center at El Rancho High School that opened mid-January, advising site staff on the most effective, research-based resources and programs to include. Their imprint can also be found in sensory rooms on each of the district’s elementary and middle school campuses, featuring a number of zones and manipulatives to assist students as part of the school day.
Community agencies have also made it possible to provide after-school programs at elementary and middle schools. The Boys & Girls Clubs opened its doors to El Rancho High School students in March 2016, ensuring that participating students have a safe place to go to complete homework, interact with others and gain life skills. A recent ribbon cutting ceremony was held in recognition of the opening of the El Rancho Youth Center, which expands the current Boys & Girls Club program while incorporating the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Pico Rivera Individual Development in Ethics (P.R.I.D.E.) program. This after-school program will offer opportunities for students to participate in social and emotional wellness lessons, academic support, workforce development, leadership building and mentorship. Additional after-school programs have been developed by the city of Pico Rivera’s Reach Program, providing engaging day care programs at each elementary site, and by Think Together at each middle school. Since the existing program offerings remain consistently full, students on the waiting list and others will have the opportunity to join two new programs provided by other entities later this school year. Families have come to trust the school staff and partner agencies providing these programs, a vital link to ensure that families can count on day-long care for their children (Epstein, et al, 2018).
When a student and their family find themselves in a crisis, ERUSD’s partners step in to go above and beyond what normal resources can provide. During the 2022 holiday season, the California Highway Patrol donated gifts to 30 of the district’s most in-need families, rising to meet a need in fewer than three weeks’ time. Another local nonprofit, the Terri Large Keeping the Faith Foundation, provided gifts for the family of a young cancer survivor. Local elected officials and their staff provided holiday meals. The district has also established a connection with Shoes That Fit this spring, fitting students with a new pair of shoes and socks. Each of these events is managed with the utmost care and confidentiality, so students and families participating in these programs receive support when they need it.
Honoring the dimensions of students’ cultural identities, ERUSD has been at the forefront of establishing a number of learning opportunities for students. As the first public school district in California to require a five-unit Ethnic Studies course as part of graduation requirements that also meets a University of California/California State University A-G Requirement, high school students and staff have long seen themselves and their history as part of the curriculum. Course content is closely tied to significant historical events from around Southern California, creating a deeper sense of belonging to the local community. A Spanish dual language immersion program has been available to El Rancho families since 2016, working to ensure that students can become bilingual in English and Spanish as they participate through elementary and middle school, choosing to complete the Seal of Biliteracy before they graduate. Every district teacher has access to training on culturally responsive practices as part of a thriving professional development program (Goldrick-Rab, 2016).
Engaging with students, families and the community in two-way communication, district and school leaders realize the highly important significance of serving as an approachable, visible part of the community while also remaining available to listen and learn. First and most significantly, student voice continues to drive the team’s work, as the superintendent and cabinet members meet with students quarterly in a formal, structured meeting and additionally as the need arises. Their insight about the programs they would like to see informs the district’s direction. Input from staff and families provides a second yet equally significant source of input and feedback (Lezotte, 1991). The district will host a Parent Summit in April to engage with and recognize parents — a vital link to the success of the students we serve — which was designed in large part by a committee of local parents. Furthermore, each participating adult will have the opportunity to share feedback on their experience in the summit and suggest topics for future events. The planning team will use this information to enhance existing relationships and increase the sense of community and the welcome extended to families as partners across the district.
Sustaining a school system built around connections to mental health support, robust community partnerships, acknowledgement of students’ cultural identities, mutual communication and accountability requires vision paired with compassion and tireless relationship building.
Remaining accountable to students, staff and families enhances the leadership team’s tireless drive toward continuous improvement (Fullan, 2009). Realizing that students rely on their teachers, counselors and administrators for vital instruction and support even more urgently today, the district has made a renewed commitment to sustaining practices tied to the principles of transformational leadership bound by the mantra, “Promises made, promises kept.” Follow through is prized and necessary, as the way forward will require additional trust earned through keeping commitments aligned with the district’s mission: “Students will be challenged to become college and career-ready and life-long learners. The El Rancho Unified School District will actively partner with the community as its leading educational institution that provides a technology-rich and innovative learning environment for all students.” As everyone works together to ensure that every student thrives, the team realizes how urgent and vital our efforts continue to be in their lives.
Sustaining a school system built around connections to mental health support, robust community partnerships, acknowledgment of students’ cultural identities, mutual communication and accountability requires vision paired with compassion and tireless relationship building. In light of the challenges many children in the United States face each day, such as traumatic grief, the threat of violence and the impact of destructive addictions, combined with the normal developmental adaptations required of them, it is not surprising that students and their families are seeking more support and engagement with their school and district community. Working collaboratively to attain a shared, common goal of a thriving community filled with individuals who have attained their full potential, the ERUSD team in partnership with students, families and community members will beat the odds of post-pandemic life and inspire a renewed sense of hope in the academic and social lives of the students we serve (Muhammad and Cruz, 2019).
As the district evaluates the results gained from our work post-pandemic and in consideration of the challenges today’s students face, we acknowledge that measurable outcomes are part of an effective system. Many students in ERUSD feel connected to their school; generations of families have a sense of proud commitment to their schools, the district and the city of Pico Rivera, working together to ensure that all children and families have access to resources to learn and grow. The California School Dashboard, California Healthy Kids Survey, feedback from staff training and parent/family engagement events and students’ voices will influence the team’s direction and outcomes gained. The urgent nature of the work of educators, magnified by the additional challenges today’s students and families face daily, requires us to look ahead to working with them on behalf of this generation and future ones.
Epstein, Joyce, et al. (2018). School, Family, and Community Partnerships: Your Handbook for Action, 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Fullan, Michael. (2009). Realization: The Change Imperative for Deepening District-Wide Reform. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Goldrick-Rab, Sara (2016). Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Lezotte, Lawrence W. (1991). Correlates of Effective Schools: The First and Second Generation. Okemos, MI: Effective Schools Products, Ltd.
Muhammad, Anthony and Cruz, Luis. (2019). Time for Change: Four Essential Skills for Transformational School and District Leaders. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, Inc.
El Rancho Unified School District Superintendent Marco Villegas, Director of Human Resources Virginia Kelsen and Director of Student Services Dora Soto-Delgado contributed to this article.
Contact Us
© 2023 Association of California School Administrators