2017 Award Recipient

Ken Berrick

Seneca Family of Agencies

Ken Berrick - The James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards Skip to content

Improving Student Success through Unconditional Education

“Kids aren’t failing the system. The system is failing kids.”

According to Ken Berrick, this insight is critical to providing productive paths forward for struggling students and classrooms. As founder of Seneca Family of Agencies, Berrick has been at the forefront of ensuring that young people facing trauma — in foster care, juvenile justice, or in schools — get the emotional and behavioral support they need.

“We saw foster kids experiencing 10 or more placements that failed to meet their needs, and, frankly, we got sick of it,” he says. “That led us to think about how we could intervene in their lives earlier.”

Berrick and his colleagues identified schools as a key venue for reaching more students effectively. They developed a model called Unconditional Education that provides educators and parents with the skills and resources required to address students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs in an integrated way.


The goal is to create a school climate that provides the right interventions and support to keep struggling students in class and on track. “Too often resources are given to school services that pull students out of class and isolate them,” says Berrick.

Seneca’s model gives school officials greater control over special education spending so that they can respond to students who show early signs of trauma or learning disability, rather than the standard practice of reserving funds solely for the most acute cases. The organization offers Unconditional Education or related services to 50 schools in California and Washington state, serving more than 8,000 students.

“Teachers often know what their students need early on,” says Berrick, “but they just can’t get it.” In the Unconditional Education model, educators are trained to recognize trauma and disability symptoms, and request support at weekly meetings focused on coordinating services. Most issues receive attention within 48 hours.

In 2014, Seneca received a federal innovation grant to evaluate and implement the model in several Bay Area schools serving students living in poverty. Year-one results show significant impact on language and math test scores for Latino students and English-language learners, and positive effects in literacy and attitudes about school among special education students. Additionally, school climate improved, and fewer disciplinary incidents were recorded.

Berrick says several changes are needed at the systems level to improve success on a broader scale, such as increasing collaboration among mental health, child welfare, health care, and juvenile justice systems, and providing school districts with greater control over how and when public dollars are allocated for students with special needs.

Video by Talking Eyes Media

Ken Berrick

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Seneca Family of Agencies


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