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Gov. Tony Evers during the State Budget Address at the Capitol in February.

As high school graduation rates continue to increase across the nation, Wisconsin ranks among the top states for its graduation rates. According to the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings, Wisconsin has the sixth-highest high school graduation rate in the nation, with 88.4 percent of Wisconsin students gaining a high school degree.

While this is certainly cause for celebration, there is a group of students in our state who fare much worse than the state average. Across Wisconsin, only slightly more than half of youth living in foster care graduate from high school.

Children who enter the foster care system often do so because of family crises rooted in systemic poverty, including housing instability, food insecurity, inconsistent supervision and untreated medical and behavioral health needs. Families in crisis can be reluctant to reach out for and accept resources and supports for fear their children may be removed from the home.

Often the first line of early identification and response for these children are teachers, who notice the signs of a family who is struggling but lack the knowledge and connection to the early intervention resources that exist to help children and their families get back on track. Usually, the situation continues to escalate until a mandated reporter — in many cases the child’s teacher — makes a required report to the local child protective services agency.

This illustrates the incongruency of our current educational and child protection systems, which sadly are based on the principle of “fail first,” providing supports only after a child has fallen dangerously behind academically or exhibited disruptive behaviors that result in removal from their families, or the need for special education or a mental health diagnosis.

But there is good news. There is growing national consensus that there are better solutions to helping children and families earlier at lower costs and with far better short- and long-term results.

Advances in trauma-informed and evidence-based practices teach us that early intervention, prevention and more upstream services provide the building blocks that can make the difference in meeting the needs of students’ academic, behavioral and socioeconomic challenges before they reach the tipping point of failure in school and in their home.

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ new budget proposal is an important step in the right direction. He proposes a funding formula change for public schools that would increase funding not just for the needed special education and mental health services, but also for programs that can help youth before they reach the crisis stage. His proposal includes $5 million in funding for preschool programs, $7.2 million for summer school grants, $20 million for after-school programs and $2 million for community funding to help students with health, housing and transportation. This budget proposal reflects an evidence-based, comprehensive plan that is geared toward addressing the complex and perplexing challenges we have faced for far too long.

We know through research that success in education is a clear predictor of success in all facets of a person’s life, economically, socially, physically and emotionally. In fact, the science shows that the social and environmental determinants of health are the biggest predictor of all of our health and well-being. Investments in educational success have proven to produce high economic return because when people thrive, America thrives.

When schools are designed intentionally to build positive relationships, identify early signs of risk and respond comprehensively as soon as issues arise, they can meet the needs of students proactively and keep them on a path to success.

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This new approach has been defined as "Unconditional Education" (UE): a belief that every child deserves the opportunity to succeed in school and build their lives to their fullest potential. The theoretical underpinnings of the UE model have been informed by Seneca Family of Agencies and their 34 years of experience providing special education and mental health services to children and families at high risk of education failure in California.

Over the years, Seneca has tested and refined the agency’s core practices that have guided their interventions with youth and families in need. Seneca’s treatment approach integrates the systems with more front-end resources and the tools that can help assess and address youth’s complex ecological, relational and behavioral needs so they can succeed in home and in school.

Working as part of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities network of committed social-sector professionals across the nation, Seneca and the Alliance are working to introduce UE to additional network members in communities across the nation.

The governor’s call for a strategic infusion of funds for upstream education supports coupled with evidence-based solutions in school like the UE model offers students and their families the greatest opportunity to succeed.

Susan N. Dreyfus is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Ken Berrick is the founder and CEO of Seneca Family of Agencies.

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