Student Achievement and Support Services Integration

Managing increased expectations for student achievement is a global challenge for educational institutions.  Schools are under increasing pressure to demonstrate gains in student achievement.  The Portolan Group believes that support and central office personnel are an untapped resource in this endeavor.  The Portolan Group is the nation’s premier provider of consulting services to educational organization’s central office, business and support service departments.  PGI is the only consulting firm with specific programs to guide schools in the alignment of support and central office functions to academic goals.  PGI knows no other consultants who do both.  The article below explains how support services play a vital role in student achievement.

Mary, the long time school bus driver noticed something was wrong right away.  Megan was just not herself.  The normally lively and talkative first grader was clearly sad as she got on the bus.  Mary took time to notice and to find out what was wrong.  Megan’s grandma had been taken to the hospital the night before.  Megan wasn’t sure what was wrong, but she was clearly worried that grandma wasn’t ok.  She wanted to be with her mom and dad at the hospital.  Instead, she had to go to school.  That day Megan wasn’t going to do her best.  Mary consoled Megan.  She even managed to elicit a little smile.  After parking at the school, Mary got out of the bus and let the supervising teacher know what was “up” with Megan.  She didn’t pull out of the parking spot until she had extracted a promise from the teacher that he would tell Megan’s teacher what Mary had learned.  Mary was the very first district employee Megan had seen that morning.  She had made a difference.

District support service employees have an unfulfilled potential related to student learning and achievement.  This potential has received very little study.  Ignoring the potential for support service employees to incrementally impact student achievement gains has seemingly become enculturated into the fabric of our educational system.  Therefore, support service employees are often cut the deepest when funds need to be put “in the classroom.”

Purkey (1984) states:

Just as everyone and everything in hospitals should encourage healing, everyone and everything in schools should invite the realization of human potential.   This involves the people (teachers, bus drivers, aides, cafeteria staff, secretaries, librarians, nurses, counselors, custodians, crossing guards, administrators), the places (classrooms, offices, hallways, commons, restrooms, playing fields, gymnasiums, libraries), the policies (rules, codes, procedures), and the programs (curricular or extracurricular).  Everybody and everything can and should invite students to develop intellectually, socially, psychologically, and physically (p 2).

Support service employees (custodians, food service, maintenance, grounds, transportation employees, nurses, police and clerical personnel) can and should have a much more intentional role in the learning process, and thus in school improvement.  I believe that the benefits from such an integration of support service personnel into the learning culture will result in:

The following chart shows several models for identifying the four core components of the learning process:


Who Instructs

Where Learning


Who Learns

What is Learned



Lezotte (1992)

Someone (Teacher)







(Subject Matter)


Purkey (1984)




Programs (Curricular &


Policies (Rules, Codes & Procedures)

Byrd (2001)







Stover (2001)




Subject (Content and Delivery)


All of the authors cited above believe that the four places in the learning process must be optimized for maximum learning to take place.  “If one or more of the four common places is less than optimal, or if the planned interactions are less than optimal, the quality of the school’s final outputs – student learning—is diminished accordingly” (Lezotte, p. 25).  Lezotte concludes  “In summary, the four common places—learner, teacher, subject matter and setting—all interact and have an impact on what students learn in school”  (Lezotte, p. 41).

Looking at any of the above models, it is easy to see that the district support service worker has potential for significant impact on at least three of the four places of the learning process.  Historically, many of the attempts to bring service employees into the learning process focus on having them involved in an academic subject area.  They are encouraged to participate in such activities as structured academic mentoring and tutoring.  These activities are outside of their areas of expertise and day-to-day work.  While individual service employees may truly enjoy such activity, it does not correlate directly to their function in the learning setting (context or place).

In 1990, NSPRA (National School Public Relations Association) put out a beautiful calendar showing a Columbus, Ohio custodian reading to students on the steps of the school.  It is a beautiful picture and thought, but it may not demonstrate the strength of the support worker in contributing to the learning process.

Byrd (2001) believes that formal school improvement efforts have done a good job working with the curriculum, the delivery of the curriculum and the child.  He believes that minimal work has been done related to school improvement (student achievement) and what he terms the “context” of learning.  He “wonders out loud” whether incremental gains in student achievement could be found by working more intentionally on the context of learning, especially in high achieving schools.

The context (setting or place) of learning is the “home court” of the district support service worker.  Context, properly defined, must include all the places (bus, playground, parking lot, cafeteria, school environment, classroom, etc) outside of the home, where students congregate as part of the educational process.  Perhaps district support employees have as much or more impact on the setting, place or context of education than anyone else in the process.  As part of the staff, the support service employee interacts with and has significant impact on the student and is key to determining the quality of the climate or setting in which learning takes place.  The setting, place or context is his or her natural day-to-day workplace.  It is where the natural skills and expertise of the service worker shine.

In describing the importance of a pleasing habitat in the school physical environment, Purkey (1984) states:

Aesthetics is given a high priority in the inviting family (his term for a school).  Living green plants, attractive colors, comfortable furniture, soft lighting, open space, cleanliness, pleasant smells, fresh air, and comfortable temperatures are provided wherever possible.  Changes in the physical environment are made regularly to keep the habitat attractive (p. 95).

In my poem, The Learning Place, I have tried to illustrate the impact and meaning of “climate” as it relates to both learning and self-esteem.  Over many years, I have observed that the reception given support service employees by “educators” varies greatly by classroom, school and district.  They are often tolerated, sometimes encouraged, but rarely “invited” into the learning process.  Whatever incremental value they could lend to the student learning process is lost.  The chance for the employee to gain from such involvement, experience higher job satisfaction and greater self-esteem is also lost.  Intuitively, I believe that such loss may also be reflected in job performance and in a sense of alienation from the “professional” staff.  Both staff and student lose.

Purkey (1984) highlights the symbiotic nature of staff interaction:

The focus of Inviting School Success is on the classroom teacher, but everything in schools is connected to everything else.  The way the school bus driver treats a student affects how well that student does in class.  The manner in which the food is prepared and served in the cafeteria influences what role the principal will play that day (p. 102).

Lezotte (1992) adds:  “In summary, the four common places—learner, teacher, subject matter and setting—all interact and have an impact on what students learn in school” (p. 41).  The impact of the school district support service employee on student achievement is a study whose time has come.  It may be the final frontier in the facilitation of student achievement gains.  Long ignored or merely tolerated, the support service employee needs to be recognized for the vital role he or she plays in shaping the educational setting.  School-wide training and curricula need to be developed to intentionally involve every member of the school staff in student achievement.  Every support service employee deserves thanks for the role he or she plays in guiding students to a place of safety and learning because every student deserves a safe harbor.



Books and math do not exist alone -

They need bricks and mortar to shelter them.

The light that goes on when a student learns

Shines after the light goes on in the classroom.

Teachers try to bring order to cluttered minds.

They cannot do so in cluttered halls and rooms.

Education takes place when students warm up to the task.

In a cold room, they may focus only on warming up.

Teachers clean away the cobwebs from student’s minds, only

After Mr. Bill cleans away the cobwebs from the classroom’s corners.

Teachers hold the keys to unlocking closed minds

Only if Mr. Bill holds the keys to unlocking closed doors.

To those of you who teach our children, I would ask you to remember:

Focus not only on how kids learn, but also on where they learn.

Remember that a healthy climate and environment for learning

Has much to do with a healthy climate and environment.

The book, the pencil, the computer are the tools of learning;

The hammer, the pliers, and the mop are the tools of learning.

You know that teachers respond to respect and dignity --

You realize that students respond to respect and dignity –

Don’t forget, Mr. Bill responds to respect and dignity, too.

For he is the custodian, the keeper of the learning place.


Copyright 2001 All rights reserved


Byrd, Charles.  Interview.  Western North Carolina Regional Education Services Association, 2000.

Purkey, William Watson.  Novak, John M.  Inviting School Success.  Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont, CA 1984.

Lezotte, Lawrence.  Creating the Total Quality Effective School.  Effective Schools Products, Ltd. Okemos, MI 1992.

Stover, Philip. “The Learning Environment” Unpublished  2001.


Phil Stover, Founder and President of The Portolan Group has been providing assessments and consulting assistance with school district support service departments for over twenty years.  He is an advocate for giving support service employees the place due them as educators in their own right.  Phil lives in Sarasota, FL with his wife Jeanne, a long time educator in the Sarasota County Schools.

Phil Stover 941 587 4919

The Portolan Group, Inc is the nation’s premier provider of school, district and higher education central office, business and support services consulting.  For more on this and other school, district or college management related needs, please feel free to contact us at or 1-87-PORTOLAN.


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