Community Schools Build Human Connection Lacking in Technocratic School “Reform”

Child Trends, an education policy group that conducts research on strategies to improve the lives of children, has just released a new report  (summary) on what are most often called community schools.  These schools are known for their wrap-around social and enrichment services.  They are sometimes called community schools, sometimes lighted school houses, sometimes wraparound schools.  Child Trends calls these schools with integrated community supports.

According to the National Center for Community Schools, a division of New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, community schools are defined by three “interconnected support systems: a strong core instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards; expanded learning opportunities designed to enrich the learning environment for students and their families; and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.” (Emphasis added.)

Community schools are open before and after school, on weekends, and during the summer with expanded learning experiences; they set out to engage the family in myriad ways. They are defined by formal partnerships with other agencies in the community that can operate in and around the school to improve learning, attendance, health, family engagement, enriched school climate and safer neighborhoods.

All community schools have a lead partner that coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  The community school director works with the principal to coordinate the school’s academic life and social services.

In Child Trends’ new report we learn that community schools are still a relatively small education model.  These schools with integrated student supports serve one-and-a half million students nationally, out of the 50 million students educated in public schools today across America.  Child Trends counts three thousand schools with integrated student supports; 75 percent of the students they serve are Black and Hispanic.

Child Trends identifies the major providers of schools with integrated student supports: New York City’s Children’s Aid Society, the Comer School Development Program, Beacon Initiative, City Connects, Elev8, Say Yes to Education, School of the 21st Century, Turnaround for Children, University-Assisted Community Schools, and Communities in Schools—the largest provider with 2,200 schools.

One of the reasons the community school with integrated student supports has grown slowly (unlike other so-called “efficient,” top-down “school reforms” like school closure and charterization) is that these schools must be shaped by building human relationships and connections.  In the 2005, Oxford University Press published, Community Schools in Action: Lessons from a Decade of Practice, C. Warren Moses (then director of the Children’s Aid Society) describes the process the agency engaged for several years prior to launching its flagship Primary School 5 (PS5) in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan in 1993.

“The introduction of such a major change in the local schools and the dramatic expansion of CAS’s (Children’s Aid Society’s) activity in Washington Heights was a delicate process.  CAS took time and great care to make sure residents, students, teachers, administrators, the teachers’ union, other social agencies, and elected officials, including the mayor and the governor, understood the concept, the implementation plan, and CAS’s commitment to services for the children and families of Washington Heights.  As a demonstration of our willingness to use our resources and to act quickly, we bused 100 children from Washington Heights to the CAS day camp on Staten Island for eight weeks and assigned our mobile dental van to Washington Heights three days per week; the dental van served 50 children per week for several years, providing greatly needed care to immigrant children with serious dental needs.  We also worked with prominent community agencies to help expand their services and ability to work in local schools… CAS provided the resources, expertise, and supervision…” (p. 16)

Child psychiatrist James Comer’s School Development Program has created schools with integrated student supports by intentionally focusing the attention, energy, and expertise of all adults in and around the school on helping children develop along six critical pathways: physical, social-interactive, psychological-emotional, ethical, linguistic, and cognitive-intellectual. (Leave No Child Behind, p. 74)  Schools supported by the School Development Program form three teams: a governance-management team, a parents team, and a student and staff support team who together develop a comprehensive school plan that includes staff development, assessment, and ongoing modification.  In a Comer School decisions are made by consensus with no-fault problem solving.  As the teams work, School Development Program staff  persistently encourage all the adults in and around the school to overcome conflicts on behalf of the children.

Neither of these models nor any of the other community school efforts promises a quick fix for schools.  And because the overall community school movement remains small—serving 1.5 million children today—community schools don’t produce the massive data sets we demand today to demonstrate success with metrics. We have been taught that, for evaluation purposes, we should no longer trust what we can observe qualitatively. I think that is a tragedy.

Nearly five years ago I had an opportunity to visit PS5, the Children’s Aid Society Community School whose founding Moses describes in the passage quoted above.  Although my own children are grown, what I observed at PS5 spoke to me as a mother.  We began our visit in the parents’ resource room, where we had to arrange our chairs around huge commercial sewing machines that were being used in a job training class.  We visited Early Head Start, where the teachers, each one a trained Doula, described accompanying women as they gave birth to the children who would later enter this school.  We talked with Head Start teachers who lead the school’s large preschool program.  We visited the dental clinic where the children’s teeth are regularly cleaned and where cavities are filled.  The health clinic can efficiently provide the required immunizations that make so many young children start school late each fall because their parents have forgotten to get them immunized.  We listened as the psychologist in the mental health clinic explained that discipline problems have diminished as the clinic attends to family mental health.  We observed after school programs serving over 200 young people—dancing and gardening and cooking the food grown in the school garden.  The community school director told us about piecing together funding from Medicaid, Head Start, a federal “21st Century Learning Center After School Program” grant, along with funds from additional philanthropic sources.

We are in a hurry these days for quick-fix school “reform.” Maybe that is why we have led ourselves to believe that technocracy is some kind of replacement for the human bonds that can be built through painstaking effort in a community.  Also it seems  we have come to trust numbers but to distrust what our eyes see, our ears hear, and our hearts tell us is important.

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