Connecting Families to Public Benefits and Local Services

Public Policy Lab Benefit Access


Hunger and housing instability are major causes of stress in students’ lives. These needs, along with insufficient household income and health issues, are linked to chronic absenteeism and affect students’ academic outcomes. 

Schools are often safe and trusted environments for families. School staff can build on that trust and help students succeed by actively connecting their families to benefits programs—such as supportive services for housing, food, cash, immigration, health, and employment.


Community School Conference, June 2019

Benefits Access, developed by the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools (OCS) and the Public Policy Lab (PPL) with the participation of 21 Community Schools, connects families to benefits in public schools. Benefits Access equips school staff with a strategy and toolkit to consistently refer families to benefits. The long-term goal of Benefits Access is to increase both staff referrals to and family enrollments in benefits and services.

Anke Stohlmann led the Phase 2 Benefits Access team as a senior fellow at PPL. Other core team members were Amanda Finuccio, Judy Park Lee, and Natalie Sims.


Using a human-centered design process

We used a human-centered and iterative design process: Over seven months, we conducted research, co-design, and field-testing with nearly 200 people, including community school directors, principals, guidance counselors, parent coordinators, teachers, school staff, and families. 


School staff members discuss the top needs in their school during a research session.


School staff member discusses the top needs in her school with a PPL researcher.


School staff member discusses design concepts with PPL researchers during a co-design session.


School pilots outreach materials during a parent-teacher conference.


Benefits Access Strategy

The Benefits Access strategy is a three-phase approach that empowers staff to prepare, reach out, and connect families to benefits and services through a strategy and toolkit that can adapt to their school community and team capacity. The toolkit includes ten flexible tools to support school staff as they go through the three phases (including a detailed How-To Guide for school teams). We also developed an implementation guide for the Office of Community Schools, which outlines how OCS can support schools in implementing Benefits Access.


The Strategy and Toolkit are designed to amplify the existing practices and relationships that school staff have with families, with consideration for a school team’s varied capacity, the different roles that make a supportive school environment possible, and the primary needs of families living in New York City.


Paths to Referral: By combining different tools and strategies, in each of the three phases, staff can connect families with benefits in a variety of ways. The chart below describes some of these different pathways, which range from simply providing families with info about benefits to having in-depth, one-on-one meetings.



Benefits Access provides school staff with 10 tools to prepare, reach out, and refer families to public benefits and local services including outreach posters, benefits survey, outreach flyers email and phone scripts, benefits 101 info sheets, action plan, and tracking sheet.


Outreach Poster & Flyers: The outreach poster advertises the benefits and services to which Community Schools can connect families. Staff can display the poster in the main office, in school hallways, at events, or in any spaces where families gather. The outreach flyers include specific outreach messages for each of the six benefits types. Staff can use these flyers to advertise the benefits that are most relevant to their families.


Benefits Survey: The benefits survey allows the Community School team to gather data from their families on the benefits and services they are interested in and how they would like to learn about them.


Benefits 101 Information Sheets: The Benefits 101 info sheets provide an overview of resources for six benefits types: housing, food, cash, immigration, health, and employment. Each double-sided sheet includes which agencies provide benefits, how eligibility is determined, and the next steps families can take. The info sheets can be emailed/texted/posted, handed out during outreach at school events, or used to guide conversations. They can be customized to include local organizations identified in the Local Resource List.


Local Resources List: The local resource list is a reference sheet that helps Community School staff keep track of the top resources and services available in your school’s neighborhood.


Action Plan: The action plan is a tool that staff can use to plan out a family’s next steps during one-on-one conversations. It includes space to note which benefit the family is interested in, what their next steps are after considering their options and eligibility, where they can go for further assistance, and their feelings coming out of the conversation.


How-To Guide

The guide describes the purpose of Benefits Access and includes a workbook section designed to help school staff plan out their school’s strategy. Included are tools to help launch, plan, and evaluate the Benefits Access program.



Monthly Planner


Yearly Planner: Sample



You can find the Benefits Access Strategy and Toolkit on the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Community Schools’ website. Additional information and a downloadable report of the project is available on the Public Policy Lab’s website.