Why Full Service, Wraparound Community Schools?

I once had the extraordinary experience of visiting a full-service, wraparound Community School. The school was in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan and part of a network of public schools operating in partnership with the Children’s Aid Society of New York City, an agency which also houses the National Center for Community Schools.

My group visited this school right at the end of the school day, when children had transitioned to a marvelous after-school program funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. There was a community garden at the school, and some groups of children were working in the garden, while others were chopping vegetables from the garden as part of a cooking project.  Another large group of children were creating a dance program. Right in the school building were a medical clinic where children could get immunizations, and next door a dental clinic and a mental health clinic—all this funded by Medicaid. Federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start were housed right in the school, along with classrooms—one filled with commercial sewing machines and walls of thread—housing equipment used by parents for job training. The school also boasted a fine summer program that served a majority of the school’s students.

The advantages of all this, located right in the same building as a public elementary school, were so obvious that I find it hard to enumerate them.  An easy transition from school to after-school care.  Advantages for busy parents who can find medical assistance for their children without taking the day off work. Advantages for parents whose school-age children and pre-school children have services in the same building. Advantages for kids who become comfortable in a school and know the teachers and administrators from the time they are toddlers and just smoothly move on up through the grades. And in New York City in particular—where parents can’t let their children be outside without supervision while parents are at work—a welcoming, enriching alternative to kids locked alone in apartments watching TV after school.

Lots of people seem to find it hard to document the advantages. Last week Christopher Edley, Jr., a civil rights advocate and professor at the University of California College of Law and Linda Darling-Hammond, the Stanford education professor tried, but I don’t think they quite capture the epiphany that I experienced a decade ago on that New York afternoon, though Edley and Darling-Hammond do a good job of defining a Community School’s four pillars: “The promise of Community Schools is in how they prioritize the education and enrichment of vulnerable students and how they integrate services with systems of governance, professional support, and ongoing community-level dialogue.  Comprehensive community schools represent a powerful equity strategy because they are designed to identify and address inequitable practices, disrupt the systems that perpetuate educational and economic disparities, and increase opportunities for all through partnerships among all of the actors who shape children’s opportunities… (T)hese schools share four key features, or pillars: (1) providing students and families with meaningful access to needed services and supports; (2) strengthening and sustaining family and community engagement; (3) offering expanded learning time and opportunities; and (4) supporting collaborative leadership and shared decision making within the school and with community partners… Developing instructional strategies around this kind of whole child approach reflects what we know about the science of learning and the cognitive impacts of trauma and poverty as well as what we know about creating and sustaining equitable social change.”

Such language is, of course, accurate. It is important as well these days, when school districts submit proposals to philanthropies and to federal programs.  Grants depend on providing research evidence to show that if we fill a public school with the services busy parents desperately need and if we make school a comfortable place for families, children will do better at school.

A recent article in The American Educator is a little more specific about what a school district would need to do to transform a neighborhood school into a wraparound Community School. Anna Maier, Julia Daniel, Jeannie Oakes and Livia Lam explain: “Increasing economic inequality and residential segregation have triggered a resurgence of interest in Community Schools—a century-old approach to making schools places where children can learn and thrive, even in underresourced and underserved neighborhoods. Community schools represent a place-based strategy in which schools partner with community agencies and allocate resources to integrate a focus on academics, health and social services, and youth and community development, and also foster community engagement.  Many operate on all-day and year-round schedules, and serve both children and adults… (C)ommunity schools focus simultaneously on providing high-quality instruction and addressing out-of-school barriers to students’ engagement and learning.”

The President and CEO of Communities in Schools, an organization that helps school districts develop Community Schools, believes these schools help children by strengthening relationships. Dale Erquiaga writes that young people in communities where there is extreme poverty—where families may be homeless or a large number of children may be in the child welfare system—desperately need strong relationships: “The challenge now is ensuring there are programmatic responses available to all kids that foster developmental relationships.  Social-emotional skill building is part of this. So is having fully-trained adults who act as buffers of adverse childhood experiences.”

The National Center for Community Schools at NYC’s Children’s Aid Society reports that the number of Community Schools across the United States is growing: “Reliable estimates from the Coalition for Community Schools indicate that there may be more than 5,000 Community Schools in this country. Several cities have adopted community schools as a preferred reform strategy: New York City and Chicago now have more than 150 Community Schools each; Portland (Oregon) has 84… Baltimore has 52; and Lincoln (Nebraska) has 25.”

It is important to end this report by turning attention back to what happens at a Community School.  Last February in the Kappan, staff from the Coalition for Community SchoolsReuben Jacobson, Lisa Villarreal, José Muñoz, and Robert Mahaffey describe a typical morning in a Community School:  “(S)tudents start their day by meeting with local mentors over breakfast. During third period, a student must be excused for her annual checkup, but instead of leaving school to go to the doctor, she sees a pediatrician at the school-based health clinic and then returns to class. When the traditional school day ends, a dozen volunteers come to the school to lead after-school activities that students have asked for, including robotics, music, and athletics. Later that evening, students and their parents come to the school for a regularly scheduled community dinner provided by the district, where teachers are on hand to help students with homework, and parents receive guidance on registering for health insurance and connecting to needed social services…  The…  school is a Community School, one of a growing number of schools that provide both the familiar K-12 curriculum and a much broader range of supports to students and families — high-quality academic instruction, and mentoring, health care, college and career counseling, financial advising, and much more. In many cases, the community school serves as a neighborhood hub, bringing together educators, families, business leaders, elected officials, and many other local partners to ensure that students have real opportunities to succeed in school and in life.”

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Stunning New Report Shows Power of Wraparound Community Schools

Three organizations, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Coalition for Community Schools, and the Southern Education Foundation have released an in-depth and very significant report: Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools.  It is a primer for those who want to understand what a full-service Community School is and who want to know why such schools are today’s most significant policy development. The new report can also serve as a beginning guide for school districts that seek to transform their schools into Community Schools.

The new report profiles elementary, middle and high schools that are currently implementing a variety of strategies of successful Community Schools. “Their stories describe what these schools and districts were grappling with prior to becoming Community Schools, how they began to use a transformational strategy, what elements were implemented in what specific ways, and the amazing results that accrued.”

The essence of a Community School, according to the new report, is its whole child strategy—that schooling cannot be conceptualized or measured with a mere test score.  Community Schools are described as increasing attendance, decreasing suspensions and expulsions, creating healthy and safe communities, as well as improving academic outcomes.

A Community School is a set of formal partnerships with “the Community School Coordinator… part of the leadership team” and a Community School Committee including “parents, community partners, school staff, youth and other stakeholders.”  Such partnerships can be sustained by patching together a number of readily available funding streams, but the coordination and administration of the funding partnership must be sustainable for a Community School to thrive: “Community Schools require sustainable funding and resources.  This can be realized through a combination of resource provisions leveraged through partnerships; investment at the federal, state, and local government levels; and foundation and government grants.  For example, a site coordinator may leverage health and dental care, early childhood programs, before and after school learning programs, and/or restorative justice programs using free school space like an empty classroom, cafeteria, or gym after school hours.”  The public school is the primary site of such programs, which, “In addition to wrap-around services… bring a particular emphasis on high-quality teaching, deep learning, restorative justice, and authentic family engagement.”  “When schools become Community Schools, they become more than just schools; they become centers of community life.  Together, educators and community partners collaboratively address issues traditionally independently addressed by agencies like health and human services, parks and recreation departments, and housing agencies.”

At Webb Middle School, a struggling school in Austin, Texas, the threat of closure motivated teachers, parents, and the community to push for a Community School model beginning with an intensive needs assessment.  Partnerships now include after school programs provided by the Boys and Girls Club, college mentoring, a mobile clinic that provides free immunizations and physicals. “One interesting and beneficial outcome that Webb experienced by adding the mobile clinic was much greater participation on the school’s athletic teams.  Before the mobile clinic, few students participated in after school sports… because the district required that students receive a physical prior to participation in sports, which most students could not afford… Now participation rates on Webb’s athletic teams have soared, and their teams are winning.”  Families wanted the arts brought back to Webb, and the Community School staff helped bring back a band, an orchestra, and a dance troupe.  The Community School also brought English-as-a-Second-Language classes for parents, classes offered right at school for 2.5 hours three days a week.  Webb has become a desirable school; after five years as a Community School, Webb’s enrollment has grown from 485 to 750 students.

The greatest strength of this report is the set of stories of the transformation of schools across very different locations—Austin, Orlando, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Cincinnati; a county-wide strategy in Multnomah County, Oregon, and a statewide program in Kentucky.  I urge you to read these profiles carefully, for they demonstrate the complexity and the rewards of the transformations that have occurred.  At Evans High School in the very poor Pine Hills neighborhood of Orlando Florida, “students ha(d) gone without health care of any kind… With the help of their health and social service partners, Evans has been able to implement full service physical and mental health services located in their Wellness Cottage, a separate building on campus that is connected to the school… Much of this medical and mental health support is paid for through Medicaid.  The school provides assistance to students and families to fill out applications.”

Nine years ago when Baltimore’s Wolfe Street Academy became a Community School, it “was ranked 77th in the district in academic measures…. In 2014, after eight years as a Community School, Wolfe Street ranked an astonishing 2nd in the city academically, its mobility rate… down to 8.8 percent.”  “Baltimore has put together a quilt of funding sources to accomplish the funding of 52 Community Schools in the city.”  Funding streams are patched together from the City Government, philanthropic donations, and general school district funds controlled by each Community School’s principal.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, 43 of the city’s 55 schools now have Community School site coordinators and—importantly considering Ohio’s paltry investment in urban public schools—“no program has an impact on the public school system budget.  All services are leveraged and fully sustainable within themselves,” although, “Federal government Title One funds do… currently fund a portion of the Community Learning Center site coordinators.”  “Community engagement, neighborhood by neighborhood and site by site, from the very beginning led to Local School Decision-Making Councils… which constitutes the schools’ current governance. Because Cincinnati’s goal was to do this work at a district level, rather than school by school, it became necessary to embed the concept in policy to protect it for future generations… We’re now up to 43 schools…. This has lasted through four superintendents.”

Community Schools: Transforming Struggling Schools into Thriving Schools is such a positive report that it makes the formation of Community Schools sound easy.  Clearly the obstacles from community to community are overwhelming, but I urge you to read this report to understand just how such transformation can be accomplished.

Community Schools: The Basic and Radical Way to Address Child Poverty

Trip Gabriel’s story in this morning’s NY Times, 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back, describes tiny towns left behind by years of jobs lost in the coal mines, the ravages of meth addition, and families bereft of opportunity in McDowell County— West Virginia’s poorest county.  Education has long been one of the sole paths for escape from the towns and villages of Appalachia, but the fact that those who can make it do leave has only compounded rural isolation and poverty.

Toward the end of Gabriel’s article, however, we learn about a Community School effort being developed to coordinate social services and family supports with the public schools: “Reconnecting McDowell, led by the American Federation of Teachers…  is working to turn schools into community centers offering health care, adult literacy classes and other services.  Its leaders hope to convert an abandoned furniture store in Welch to apartments in order to attract teachers. ‘Someone from Indiana or Pennsylvania, they’re not going to come to McDowell County and live in a house trailer on top of a mountain,’ said Bob Brown, a union official.”

On May 18, 2013, Reconnecting McDowell was approved by the state board of education of West Virginia.  In West Virginia, according to a press release from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) the Community Schools plan became possible in 2012 after the state legislature established “collective innovation zones.”  Commenting on the formation of Reconnecting McDowell, AFT President Randi Weingarten declared, “The evidence is clear that Community Schools greatly improve disadvantaged children’s chances of success because the services and programs help overcome the ravages of poverty that affect academic achievement.”

In McDowell County, the Community School collaboration will include the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to visit homes of new parents, IBM to increase the number of computers at school, Shentel Communications to reduce internet rates for families with children at school, and several job expansion efforts including a National Guard materials-repair program and a retraining effort of the United Mine Workers.  A Community Schools “vision” reflects the reality that parents’ employment helps children thrive.

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.” Community Schools are formal contractual arrangements among agency partners.  Usually a lead partner coordinates the services that surround the academic program and that secures and coordinates the funding streams that support all this activity.  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.

In early April, the Washington, D.C.–based Coalition for Community Schools held its national forum in Cincinnati, Ohio, a school district that has worked closely with AFT to transform local schools into what Cincinnati calls Community Learning Centers.  (In Ohio, the legislature chose an Orwellian term for privatized charter schools—community schools—which has caused the Community Schools movement thriving today in Cincinnati to choose the name Community Learning Centers instead of the name used in the rest of the country for full-service, wrap-around schools.)  In a Cincinnati Enquirer column, Marty Blank, director of the Coalition for Community Schools, describes what has been quietly happening in Cincinnati: “During the 2012-13 academic year, 34 Community Learning Centers in Cincinnati mobilized more than 445 community partners to provide support to 17,898 students.  Extra personalized supports have gone to 3,290 students who demonstrated one or more risk factors, such as chronic absence, behavior problems or poor academic performance.”

Blank describes what he understands to be the core mission of the Community Schools movement: “provide a focal point for states, counties, cities, and private-sector agencies to work together with school districts to use resources more effectively, coordinate fragmented services, and break bureaucratic silos and gridlock to help children and youth succeed.”

Last Saturday in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss reprinted a fascinating column by Brock Cohen, a California teacher and researcher who participated in the recent Cincinnati national forum on Community Schools.  “As a doctoral student and former Los Angeles high school English teacher, I had already become aware of the ways in which a child’s learning trajectory is acutely impacted by social, emotional, and environmental factors.  Seeing the intentionality with which schools in high-poverty rural and urban communities were leveraging partnerships to cultivate programs and interventions for children gave me hope.”  Cohen doesn’t underestimate the challenges, however: “But working with schools across a tumultuous urban school district as an academic coach has given me a broader view of the systems and attitudes that impede positive change and, thus, threaten to undermine the movement.”

At the conference Cohen comes to know Eddy Estrada—also from Los Angeles,  a student at a Community School, and in Cincinnati to speak about his own experience as part of a panel.  “Our conversations over a three-day span—2,000 miles away from our home—made me realize that Community Schools can be impactful in ways that are almost impossible to see…  Because of countless hardships and setbacks, both of Eddy Estrada’s parents were unable to progress beyond elementary school; nonetheless, Eddy will be attending Cal-State Northridge next fall, where he plans on majoring in music education…  Skeptics might dismiss Eddy’s story as yet another case of a gifted outlier defeating the odds, but he’s had a good deal of help along the way.  Specifically Torres (high school’s) Community Schools coordinator Christina Patricio, has been a nurturing, unwavering, force in Eddy’s life.”

I urge you to read this column to learn more about what Cohen believes are the almost intractable challenges for public schools in very poor communities and to explore with Cohen how Community Schools can help.