Professor, students examine charter school hiring practices

Stephanie Koons
June 02, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It takes more than high-quality teachers and educational leaders to help students thrive in school. Research led by Ed Fuller, associate professor of education (educational leadership), indicates it’s also important to have professional support personnel such as nurses, counselors and librarians on site, for the development of the whole student.

The research team found those important resources are far less likely to be present in charter schools than in public schools in Pennsylvania, which Fuller said could have a particularly damaging effect on urban students living in poverty.

“Our goal is to push legislators and local policy makers to expand access and ensure all schools have access to these personnel,” said Fuller.

Fuller, along with Zoe Mandel, a doctoral student in the Department of Education Policy Studies (EPS), and Jessica Bard, an undergraduate majoring in education and public policy (EPP), have produced policy briefs that outline the importance of nurses, counselor and librarians, in addition to examining access to these types of school personnel across the state.

Despite the importance of nurses, librarians and counselors, according to the researchers, there has been little research about the extent to which charter schools — schools that receive government funding but operate independently of the established state school system in which they are located — employ these crucial personnel. 

“Our goal is to push legislators and local policy makers to expand access and ensure all schools have access to these personnel.”

— Ed Fuller, associate professor of education at Penn State

“The policy briefs are really to shed light on what the state of nurses, counselors and librarians is in Pennsylvania,” Mandel said.

According to a policy brief prepared by Fuller and Mandel, a far greater percentage of public schools employ nurses, librarians and counselors at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels when compared to charter schools in the state. The largest gaps they found were for counselors — 59 percentage points at elementary school level, nearly 48 percentage points at middle school level and almost 58 percentage points at the high school level. It is especially worrisome, they stated in the policy brief, that only 10% of charter high schools employ a counselor.

“Counselors provide access to post-secondary opportunities,” Mandel said. “It could be the difference between applying and not applying to college,” particularly for minoritized students.

There also were large gaps for nurses — 30 percentage points for elementary schools, almost 42 percentage points for middle schools and 19 percentage points for high schools. Overall, the researchers reported, less than half of charter schools in Pennsylvania employ a nurse.

The gaps for librarians turned out to be the smallest, Fuller and Mandel reported in their policy brief. The gaps were almost 25 percentage points for elementary schools, about 32 percentage points for middle schools and 21 percentage points for high schools.

“Counselors provide access to post-secondary opportunities. It could be the difference between applying and not applying to college,” particularly for minoritized students.

— Zoe Mandel, doctoral student in the Department of Eduction Policy Studies at Penn State

While a number of states have legislation that requires schools to employ non-teaching professionals, Fuller said, there currently is no such mandate in Pennsylvania. Despite having funding similar to regular public schools, they tend to not focus on providing nonteaching professionals in schools.

An additional complication is that charter schools are predominantly in urban areas, since they need more students to generate funding. As a result, charter schools serve a higher proportion of students living in poverty, many of whom don’t have access to quality healthcare.

Moreover, the lack of nurses and counselors in charter schools could be a barrier to enrollment for families with children that have physical and/or mental health issues.

“The fact that (charter schools) don’t provide these professionals means some kids can’t enroll in these schools,” Fuller said.

Bard said she was in Fuller’s educational leadership class when he recruited her for the school nurse study. “I thought it was such an incredible opportunity to get to learn more,” she said. “It is just mind-blowing how students who need nurses the most are the least likely to have them.”

In addition to treating students’ physical health conditions, Bard said, nurses produce outcomes that contribute to a student’s success. One of those benefits is that they reduce absenteeism among students.

In a situation in which a student is injured at school, she said, a nurse can treat the injury and then send him/her back to class. That also makes classroom time more effective for teachers, she added, since they don’t have to spend time catering to students’ health needs. Additionally, nurses can screen for underlying mental health issues when students report physical problems.

 “I think (access to nurses) is a really important part of educational equity and making sure all students have the ability to learn to their highest potential,” Bard said.

In extreme circumstances, she added, the absence of a nurse can be catastrophic. In a recent incident in a Philadelphia school where no nurse was present, a student went into anaphylactic shock and died since no one on the scene knew how to administer drugs properly. “It was totally a preventable death if the proper medical care were provided,” Bard said.

“I thought [doing this research] was such an incredible opportunity to get to learn more. It is just mind-blowing how students who need nurses the most are the least likely to have them.”

-- Jessica Bard, an undergraduate majoring in education and public policy at Penn State

While a lack of school librarians may not be life-threatening, the researchers said they provide valuable services that benefit students’ academic and personal development. A lot of schools have closed their libraries due to economic constraints, Fuller said.

Often, charter schools will install a computer lab in lieu of a library and students will access books through a computer. Since minoritized children in urban areas are less likely to have books at home, he added, they have more to lose when charter schools forgo physical libraries and the hiring of librarians.

Fuller said he also was surprised to discover, through a causal study, that counselors can have as much impact on students as teachers, particularly in high school.

Mandel added that receiving guidance on the college admission process is especially important for students of color and first-generation students who may be unable to seek advice from family on matters such as navigating scholarships or seeking financial aid.

The researchers’ ultimate goal, Fuller said, would be for the Pennsylvania legislature to enact statutes with funding attached to require schools to employ non-teaching professionals.

Mandel added that they would particularly like to reach College of Education alumni in positions to influence educational policy in the state.

“We’re hoping this sheds light on an issue that doesn’t really get a lot of attention,” she said.

For Fuller, conducting this research has been a natural progression of the work he has done since graduate school on inequitable access in education.

He noted that in the Department of Education Policy Studies, almost all of the faculty focus to some degree on access and equity, inclusion and diversity.

“It fits really well within the community of EPS,” he said. “I think that’s just going to grow and expand and our focus in the college will be even greater.”

Bard knows her passion is fighting for social justice through the school system. She plans to take a year off after graduating before pursuing a doctorate and will do an internship this summer in Israel with a holistic program that helps students in poverty. 

Bard, who is minoring in sociology and political science, said the College of Education’s EPP major has enabled her to combine her interests in education and politics. “I feel really lucky that I’m at a school that has such a unique major,” she said.

Mandel, who worked in the education and nonprofit sectors in Brooklyn prior to starting her graduate studies, said that both her professional and academic experiences have served as training grounds for her to achieve her ultimate goal of serving students of color and “ensuring they have access to high-quality teachers, leaders and other personnel.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 03, 2020