Community Schools May Be the Best Post-Pandemic Educational Strategy

Jeff Bryant recently profiled Mary Parr-Sanchez, the current president of the National Education Association’s New Mexico affiliate, speaking about what education will be like after the pandemic: “‘I think we’re all going to be different after this… When I first learned of the community schools model, it hit me like a lightning bolt,’ she told me. ‘I loved it because it focused on the academic and nonacademic needs of children, and the focus was on learning and a culturally relevant curriculum, not just test scores.’ Now, she is convinced the community schools model is the most promising way forward for schools as they reopen to the new realities of recovering from the fallout of COVID-19.”

Here is how the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s National Center for Community Schools defines a full-service, wraparound community school: “The foundations for community schools can be conceptualized as a Developmental Triangle that places children at the center, surrounded by families and communities. Because students’ educational success, health and well-being are the focus of every community school, the legs of the triangle consist of three interconnected support systems: A strong core instructional program… expanded learning opportunities… and a full range of health, mental health and social services designed to promote children’s well-being and remove barriers to learning.”

Community schools are designed locally to meet the needs of the particular school community, but they share essential characteristics. The Children’s Aid Society explains that community schools are not mere ad hoc school community partnerships, but are instead the product of careful planning and staffing. A Community School Director—an administrator—partners with the principal to coordinate the social, medical and enrichment services housed in the community school with the academic program. Each community school has a designated lead partner agency, which “maintains a full-time presence in the school and engages in regular joint planning with the Community School Director, the staff, and the community.”

In Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools in New York City, the lead partner has been the Children’s Aid Society, which enumerates the programs community schools typically bring right into the school building: medical, dental, mental health and social services, innovative after-school, holiday and summer enrichment programs, early childhood programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, parent and family engagement and parent education programs, and other programs for community development.

The American Federation of Teachers has endorsed community schools, provides online resources for the establishment of community schools and has supported their development in West Virginia and Cincinnati, for example. The National Education Association has likewise supported the development of these full-service, wraparound schools. The community schools model has until now been adopted primarily in urban areas. But Bryant’s profile featuring New Mexico’s NEA president, Mary Parr-Sanchez, demonstrates how the adoption of this education model has supported children and the community in a small, impoverished New Mexico village, 10 miles outside of Los Cruces.

Parr-Sanchez believes the pandemic has exposed all the reasons community schools are an appropriate response to families’ needs: “The current crisis is exposing the inequality not only in schools but in our society and making people more aware of the conditions of children.”

Bryant adds: “Indeed, the indisputable lesson the pandemic has taught the nation is that local schools are, like it or not, the nation’s safety net for children and families, and that vast inequities in public education and society at large are blocking children’s access to learning—whether it’s being able to get internet service or having a home where children can do schoolwork. We also learned that teacher-student relationships are at the center of the education process, and when those break down, learning breaks down too.”

Bryant shows why the supports embedded in a community school are so urgently needed in a rural area of New Mexico: “In 2017, the state was tied with Louisiana for the second-highest poverty rate in the nation, 19.7 percent, according to World Population Review. Personal finance site, WalletHub, ranked New Mexico as the worst state in America to raise a family… In its most recent annual state-to-state comparison of overall child well-being, the Annie E. Casey Foundation rated New Mexico at the very bottom. The highly respected analysis was especially brutal in ranking New Mexico 50 in education due to the state’s poor fourth-grade reading test scores (with only 25 percent of students rating ‘proficient’) and high percentage of high school students who do not graduate within four years (29 percent). The state also ranked bottom or near bottom on a number of other factors including health care, economic conditions, and household and community circumstances.  New Mexico, along with Mississippi, has the most children living in high poverty areas—24 percent.” Bryant also cites a recent school finance report from the Albert Shanker Institute ranking New Mexico 13th in the nation on “a measure of the state’s school spending as a percentage of the state’s gross domestic product.”

Parr-Sanchez and her union helped support the development of a community school in Los Cruces beginning in 2013, and the number of New Mexico community schools has grown considerably since then, including the transformation of Dona Ana Elementary School into a community school this past February: “Dona Ana, a rural village about 10 miles outside of Las Cruces, already faced formidable educational challenges…. Family food insecurity is widespread, the community lacks affordable housing, and the local economy is stagnant.” The school principal, Cherie Love, reports: “Reliable transportation and money for gas is also a challenge for our families.”

Bryant adds: “Prior to the opening of its community schools program, Dona Ana was already providing free breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack to 100 percent of its students and a free dinner and snack to about 120 students enrolled in its extended learning (afterschool) programs.”  When the pandemic struck a month later, Bryant reports that, “because Dona Ana had adopted the community schools model, it had in place the personnel to meet the multiple needs of a traumatized community.”

Principal Love explains: “Our community schools coordinator worked our help desk to provide information to parents and channel their questions to the appropriate departments and people… We provided mental health support to students and their families through our school counselor and our school special education psychologist.”  The school had begun working to help parents expand their children’s access to the internet, and many of the families who attended the classes “have reported that they are now using (their) iPad to support their child’s learning.”

Bryant adds that with the community school program operational after months of previous planning before the pandemic struck, “Dona Ana had in place the partners it needed to bolster support for students and families. Among those partners is New Mexico State University, which provided school supply packets to more than 200 elementary students.  Another partner, local nonprofit Ngage New Mexico, provided parents a webinar in Spanish and English on ‘Creating Effective Home Learning Environments.”

Teacher and state NEA President, Parr-Sanchez hopes the educational crisis caused by the pandemic will awaken people’s awareness about the benefits of community schools in small communities as well as large cities: “After this, I think schools will be viewed as essential and that we can just own that truth without having to fight for it.  So then the issue is how do we do it right, and we look to community schools as a model.  And we fund them.”

What about research on the effectiveness of the community schools model?  Last winter, the Rand Corporation released a  study confirming that like all whole school improvement models, community schools make an increasing difference over time. The RAND study evaluated NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s expansion of community schools across an increasing number of New York City’s public schools: “In particular we found that the NYC-CS has a positive impact on student attendance in all types of schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) and across all three years that outcomes were measured (from 2015-18).  We also found positive and significant impacts on elementary and middle students’ on-time grade progression in all two years for which we have data and on high school students’ graduation rates in two of the three years. Our analyses suggests that the NYC-CS led to a reduction in disciplinary incidents for elementary and middle school students but not for high school students. Finally, we found that NYC-CS had a positive impact on math achievement in the third and final year….”

In its May 5, 2020 newsletter, the National Education Policy Center reports on a study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Jennifer Jellison Holme, who poses a number of questions school personnel and policy makers ought to consider as they implement and improve community schools. Several of the questions are basic to any kind of programmatic educational improvement: “Should classroom learning play a larger role? How can community schools build more on community strengths? How can community schools effectively coordinate with and among their many partners? What is the right balance between grassroots efforts and top-down reforms? What resources are necessary to sustain the reforms and where will they come from? Could more rural areas benefit from community schools?”

Jellison Holme poses one additional question that gets at a much deeper concern: “How can the community schools movement more emphatically address broader structural inequities?” NEPC’s newsletter quotes Jellison Holme exploring the complexity embedded in that question:  “Community schools policies are arguably one of the few efforts within education policy that directly acknowledge, and seek to address, the structural inequities that affect schools, in an era where other policy initiatives gloss over local contextual factors, or treat them as irrelevant… Community schools themselves can be one prong in a policy strategy to address these problems, but they likely will not succeed in isolation from efforts to address these broader issues… In sum, although we applaud the community school approach as a promising solution to massive disinvestment in urban communities, it may not translate into longer term improvements in outcomes for low-income students and their families without coupling it to building capacity and agency within communities, or addressing larger structures of segregation and finance inequity.”

What to Do to Support Students Who Are Chronically Absent from School?

Two new reports—from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and from Attendance Works—explore chronic student absenteeism and its consequences for student achievement and graduation.  Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must begin reporting data about students’ chronic absence in their accountability reports.  Attendance Works even posts an online interactive map from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution where a person can find chronic absence data about one’s own school district.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as students missing not just days but also weeks of school.  Attendance Works defines chronic absenteeism as, “missing 10 percent of school—the equivalent of two days every month or 18 days over a 180-day school year.”  While all school districts record students’ absences from school, until recent years most have not tracked each individual student’s accrued absences over the semester or the school year. Now school districts are required to watch and intervene when individual students’ attendance patterns become worrisome.

What is clear is that, while there are a number of ways researchers measure students’ chronic absence from school, the problem is serious:  When students miss too much school, they learn less, they fall behind, and they are more likely to drop out without graduating.  And students who are poor are more likely to miss school.

Writing for Attendance Works, Hedy Chang, Lauren Bauer, and Vaughan Byrnes explain: “Especially hard hit are children who live in poverty, have chronic health conditions or disabilities, or experience homelessness or frequent moves.  When chronic absence reaches high levels in a school or classroom, it can affect every student’s opportunity to learn, because the resulting churn—with students cycling in and out of the classroom—is disruptive for all and hampers teachers’ ability to meet students’ diverse learning needs.”

And before they delve into a data analysis, EPI researchers, Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss summarize past research: “Poor health, parents’ nonstandard work schedules, low socioeconomic status… changes in adult household composition (e.g. adults moving into or out of the household), residential mobility, and extensive family responsibilities (e.g. children looking after siblings)—along with inadequate supports for students within the educational system (e.g. lack of adequate transprtation, unsafe conditions, lack of medical services, harsh disciplinary measures, etc.)—are all associated with a greater likelihood of being absent, and particularly with being chronically absent.”

When we think about chronic absence, most of us think about students who cut school to hang out—students who are bored or disaffected.  But other issues are harder to address.  One teacher I know told me about a student who was late every day because she had to wait to come to school until a van came to take her quadriplegic mother to a care center. Another teacher who has been substituting in a huge high school told me he was frustrated because in the five sections of the English class he had to teach every day, it seemed that a different group of students was present each day. It seemed baffling to cope with the churn.

From the University of California at Berkeley and the Learning Policy Institute, David Kirp describes a new program in Los Angeles that seems to be paying off: “The Los Angeles Unified School District has invested in a new, low-cost approach to curbing absenteeism that’s been proven to move the needle. It’s a simple, potent idea: Enlist parents as allies in keeping their kids in school.”  Many parents, he writes, are unaware that their children are missing school: “To correct these misperceptions and to enlist parents in keeping kids in school, 190,000 Los Angeles families whose kids met the chronically absent standard in the past will be mailed attendance information five times a year.”  The letters are simple: “Billy has missed more school than his classmates—16 days so far in this school year… Students fall behind when they miss school. …Absences matter and you can help.”  Kirp reports that chronic absenteeism has dropped not only in Los Angeles, but also by 10 or 15 percent in Philadelphia and Chicago after such reporting to parents becomes routine.

The research from EPI and Attendance Works, however, indicates that chronic absenteeism very frequently reflects that students who miss school are facing serious health and family challenges which can be addressed only through additional support by teachers, counselors and social workers to help students find ways to make their own schooling a priority even when other problems intervene.

Two primary school reforms come to mind. The first is to make classes small enough that teachers can really come to know their students and the barriers for students that make school attendance difficult.  This is harder in a middle school or high school, however, where teachers work with likely five classes a day—a total of 125 students even when class size is kept at 25 students.

The benefits of wrap-around, full-service Community Schools (see here or here) become apparent in the context of such challenges.  With medical and dental clinics located in the school, parents don’t have to keep kids out of school because they have forgotten the necessary immunizations. The toothache can be addressed promptly with only an hour away from class. Such schools also employ social workers to help families balance the responsibilities that sometimes put care-giving in conflict with school and to help parents and students address issues like transportation.

These schools are also designed to welcome families warmly and authentically. In Community Schools in Action (Oxford University Press, 2005), the assistant director of the New York Children’s Aid Society National Technical Assistance Center for Community Schools, Hersilia Mendez describes the role of parent outreach and parent engagement in a Community School: “In its work in Community Schools, the Children’s Aid Society sees parents as assets and key allies, not as burdens; we aim not only to increase the number of parents involved in their children’s education but also to deepen the intensity of their involvement and to encourage greater participation in their children’s future. As we engage parents in skills workshops and advocacy events, we also create a critical link to the home, allowing us to serve and empower whole families… The Children’s Aid Society wanted to erase the mixed invitation that schools often extend to parents—that parents should be involved in their children’s schooling but only on the school’s terms and often in rather menial ways… For an immigrant like me… Public School 5’s warm atmosphere was beyond belief.  The beautifully furnished family room, the smell of fresh coffee, the presence of so many parents at all times, and, in particular, the friendly disposition of the staff were heartwarming. To me, it was an inconceivable atmosphere to find in any school, let alone a New York City public school… The parent involvement model is culturally responsive and provides multiple entry points for meeting parents at their level as well as multiple opportunities to engage with, support, and strengthen the school.” (pp. 42-45)