It isn’t often that teachers’ unions, politicians and advocacy groups agree on a concept for improving schools, but that is exactly what has happened in the case of the Coalition for Community Schools.
The coalition, an alliance of more than 150 national, state and local organizations, is working to bring public schools in partnership with community resources in order to improve student success. While that might seem like an abstract idea, it has very concrete goals, such as boosting high school graduation rates and college readiness. The idea has been endorsed by the Obama administration, the National Governors Association, National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and proactive groups such as the National Council of La Raza.
Through its Community Agenda for America’s Public Schools, the coalition is focused on improving the lives and achievement rates of struggling youth while also providing services to families. It does so by involving a broad range of community-based education, health, social service, higher education, and parent-focused organizations in the work of educating young people.
Specifically, it means that when students come to school for classes,they also have access to dental or medical care at an on-site health clinic. After school, they might take music or dance lessons or have tutoring sessions. Their parents can take advantage of job-training work-shops or attend programs concerning school curriculum, teaching methods or local issues, such as drugs and gangs. Community high schools often partner with local colleges to strengthen college-prep curricula and encourage a “college-going attitude.”
“There is no better way to involve families and the community in the work of educating our youth than the community school strategy,” said Martin J. Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools and president of the Institute for Educational Leadership. “They are built on five pillars: strong early childhood development experiences, comprehensive services for students and their families, after school and other extended learning opportunities, deep parent and community involvement, and an engaging, real-world curriculum.”
For many educators, this holistic approach is welcome news in an era in which talk about improving schools has focused on test scores and teacher accountability. NEA, a partner with the coalition, says community schools can help reduce the demand on school staff members who deal with all the challenges students bring to school.
“In the current era of testing,labeling and punishing public schools, the Community Agenda for America’s Public Schools is like a breath of fresh air,” said Dennis Van Roekel, NEA president. “We need an improved strategy for public schools, one that moves away from a schools-only, test-based approach under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to an integrated and comprehensive approach that treats schools as centers of the community– open to everyone.”
Randi Weingarten, president of AFT, has echoed Roekel’s support,saying that “teachers can’t do it all”and that community schools address critical factors such as poverty and stability at home that research shows affect two-thirds of student outcomes.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it clear that communities and families play a critical role in making decisions about school turnaround.
“Turning around a struggling school is hard, hard work,” he said in a speech to the NAACP. “The work must be shaped at the local level with all of the stakeholders at the table.”
Public Schools as Hubs
The basic rationale for building community schools is fairly straightforward. It is based on the premise that students in many neighborhoods need a wide range of support systems to address factors such as difficult family circumstances, poverty and health problems. Research shows that students often come to school with emotional and physical needs that can affect academic achievement and pose challenges for public schools,which are under-resourced. By fostering community development and community engagement, coalition leaders believe that schools can improve student learning, strengthen families and build healthier communities.
“Those who advocate for community schools believe that the present emphasis on academics by No Child Left Behind is too narrow an approach to public education,” said Blank. “We believe that schools, together with their communities, must work to fulfill the condition of learning necessary for every child to succeed.”
In order for this to happen, coalition leaders say, schools need to become centers of the community that are open to everyone – all day,every day, evenings and weekends. If public schools will reach outside their walls, they will tap into a variety of partners and services to deal with societal issues that prevent students from learning, says Blank.
The coalition has outlined four broad outcomes for community schools to ensure that students graduate high school and are ready for college, careers and citizenship:Children are ready to learn when they enter school and every day thereafter.All students learn and achieve to high standards; young people are well prepared for adult roles in the work-place, as parents and as citizens; families and neighborhoods are safe,supportive and engaged; and parents and community members are involved with the school and their own lifelong learning.
Models of Community Schools
Community schools exist in 49 states and the District of Columbia.In Chicago, home to the largest community schools initiative in the nation, the 150 participating schools already have made substantial strides in decreasing student absences, raising test scores and improving graduation rates.
Part of the strategy for success and closing the achievement gap involves reducing health care disparities. These programs draw on studies showing healthier students are better learners and that underserved communities can benefit from a system that brings health care to students where they are – in school.
For example, the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) operates 22 community schools in New York City in partnership with the New York City Board of Education. Many, but not all, are located in poorer districts in and around Washington Heights, Harlem and the South Bronx. Students from these neighborhoods often face poverty, lack of health care, and other crises that create physical and mental health issues. Teenage pregnancy rates are high.
To address these needs, the Children’s Aid Society operates five school-based health centers in its Manhattan community schools as well as two licensed mental health clinics in CAS Community Schools in the Bronx.
Adria Cruz, CAS School Health Services Manager, says that by bringing a team of nurse practitioners,physicians, social workers, psychiatrists and dentists to the school building, Children’s Aid eliminates barriers to health care and provides an environment in which students and their parents can become better health care consumers.
“This access allows parents and children to develop a different type of relationship with the health care establishment,” she said. “They are comfortable enough to ask questions of their physicians, and less apprehensive about medical, mental and dental health care.”
Cruz says services offered by the school-based health centers include complete physical exams, immunizations, laboratory tests, acute care (asthma, diabetes, etc.), first aid, reproductive health, counseling and mental health services and dental care.
The services yield results for both learners and teachers.
“Because students in Children’s Aid community schools receive high-quality services right in the schools, they arrive in classes ready to learn, and teachers feel freer to teach,” said Richard Negron, director of CAS community schools. “Children’s Aid community schools show better student and teacher attendance, less grade retention, better test scores and better parent involvement than similar schools.”
A recent research brief states that students participating in CAS after-school programs from 2004 to 2007 scored significantly higher on their standardized math tests than students in other city schools. The community schools posted higher attendance rates than the city average.
Negron says community schools also are producing better results at the high school level. He cites as examples the Theater Arts Production.
Smaller cities also are adopting the community school model. Tukwila, Wash., south of Seattle, has five community schools that serve a large population of foreign-language-speaking and recent immigrant families. Some of the students who enroll in the district’s Foster High School have had no formal education.
Through a number of initiatives, the schools have created a climate that incorporates cultural diversity while providing the extra academic support students need. There are cultural cooking classes, as well as music and dance exhibitions from various countries. Volunteer tutors from the University of Washington help students with homework and academic skills. The staff members of the Tukwila Community Schools Collaboration(TCSC) have developed liaisons to improve communication between the parents and the school, particularly for Hispanic and Somali-speaking families. Workshops for parents are held on student discipline, attendance and gang activity.
As a result, the TCSC on-time gradation rate has increased annually since 2002, and the rate of absence in middle and high school has dropped. Foster High School’s on-time graduation rate has recently risen to 74.4 percent, and its extended graduation rate was 82.5 percent, which is several points higher than the state average.
Marty Blank says Tukwila is just one example of how the community school concept is taking hold in many areas of the country that are facing changing demographics due to immigration and migration of various groups, including Hispanics.
“One of the reasons for the rise of this strategy is that the student population everywhere is becoming more diverse,” he said. “For example, there are several thousand Muslims in Fargo, N.D., and administrators there realize they need support to help schools adjust to the cultural differences these students bring to the community.”
Company (TAPCO) High School in the South Bronx, Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem, and Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx. All of these schools are located in high-poverty neighborhoods where risk factors are prevalent. All receive comprehensive CAS services.
“TAPCO was recently named the top-rated New York City high school, in large part because nearly 94 percent of its students graduated this past year and they were accepted into top-rated colleges,” he said.“Additionally, 99 percent of freshmen earned enough credits last year to be on track to graduate Manhattan Center for Science and Math. Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School also produced a significant number of students who graduated within four years.”
Negron credits college-readiness efforts at the three schools with leveling the playing field and helping students navigate high school.
“We provide consistent support and direction around high school success and college applications, from helping with the college essay to hosting financial aid and college fairs,” he said. “We even provide financial support for college trips when needed and emergency assistance to students who may need to purchase clothes for that all-important interview.”
In recognition of their success, full-service schools were part of New York City’s successful Race to the Top application, signaling state support for the strategy. The Obama administration has cited Children’s Aid Society and community schools as an evidence-based reform strategy and is considering making it part of the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Still, there are those who say that community schools resemble a“nanny state” and that the whole idea is too complex to sustain meaningful change. Others suggest that all of these services and programs are a distracter from the core work of academics.
“Community schools support strong academics and good teachers,”said Blank. “But we are deeply concerned that the curriculum is too narrow and needs to address real-world issues, not just test scores.”