Community Schools: Steady Improvement for Students and Support for Families

A test-score-yardstick and a short time line—those are the tools we use these days to evaluate school improvement. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top gave us four approved plans for school “turnaround,” and if the school wasn’t turned around quick enough, the most stringent of the four was imposed—closure.

Policy makers have assumed that school turnaround could be neat, quick, and cheap only to discover that the solution too often made things worse for the students and their communities. Rachel Cohen, writing for The American Prospect, describes the impact of school closures on neighborhoods—specifically in Chicago where 50 schools were closed at the end of the 2012-2013 school year: “While black students were 40 percent of Chicago’s school district population in 2013, they made up 88 percent of those affected by the closures.”  “(T)hree years later, Chicago residents are still reeling from the devastating closures—a policy decision that has not only failed to bring about notable academic gains, but has also destabilized communities, crippled small businesses, and weakened local property values. With the city struggling to sell or repurpose most of the closed schools, dozens of large buildings remain vacant, becoming targets of crime and vandalism throughout poor neighborhoods.” “In Chicago… 87.5 percent of students affected by closures did not move to significantly higher-performing schools.”

A mass of social science research demonstrates the correlation between students’ standardized test scores and their families’ economic circumstances. Recognizing the futility of the school turnaround plans that pretend it is easy to raise test scores, New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has instead been turning schools in the poorest neighborhoods into full-service, wraparound Community Schools with health and dental clinics and services for parents located right in the school building. Here is how the Children’s Aid Society, the huge social service agency in NYC that has been supporting the development of Community Schools, describes these education-social service hybrids: “A Community School is a strategy for organizing the resources of the school and the community around student success. It is both a place and a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources. Its integrated focus on academics, services, supports and opportunities leads to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities. Schools become centers of the community and are open to everyone —all day, evenings and Saturdays, year round.”

Supporters of Mayor de Blasio’s plan worry, however, that in New York, politicians will hold Community Schools accountable for impossibly quick test score turnarounds. Earlier this week a reporter for Chalkbeat New York interviewed Mark House, principal of a Community School in Manhattan’s Washington Heights that serves students in grades 6-12. The school, Community Health Academy of the Heights, part of the Community School network sponsored by New York City United Federation of Teachers, “is 92 percent Hispanic and roughly 90 percent poor.”  Test scores have slowly crept upward, and the state has only recently removed this school from its list of struggling schools.

House, the school’s principal, describes the school’s resource coordinator who recently helped a desperate mother: “finding money to get the power back on, connecting the family to a food pantry, and helping to find… affordable housing.”  “To House, these are the moments that demonstrate the power of community schools—and their pitfalls. Though the Washington Heights principal firmly believes in the idea that students can only learn if their basic needs outside the building are met—a key element of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s approach to struggling schools—he is also wary of the argument that infusing schools with social services will immediately lead to academic payoffs.”

House explains: “Turning a kid’s lights back on doesn’t make their test scores go up. It’s the precondition for learning.”  He continues: “We do a lot of adult education, a lot of ESL programming for adults, we do two different exercise classes. And the building is open until 9:30 with a lot of people in it and again on Saturdays…. The students and their families have major medical needs, they’ve neglected things.  We’re discovering kids in eleventh grade that need glasses, we’re discovering kids in tenth grade who haven’t seen a dentist in four years… So opening a school-based clinic has been fairly remarkable because normally the state indicates you have to have over a thousand students to open one. We found a workaround to do it with only 640 students that works for all the critics, but it’s taken a while.”

The complexity of meshing social service and health programs with educational programming is complicated and expensive. The school has connected with four different agencies to provide glasses for students in need, but the expense has shut down three of these partnerships. “That’s what we’re struggling with, and doing it again and again. So while it makes sense that everybody should see the board and have glasses on their face, the actually accomplishment of that takes endless numbers of hours and is a really frustrating process.”

House worries about the state’s reliance on rising test scores for evaluation: “The thing I’m nervous about is the speed at which they’re going to expect to see results. We’ve been doing this work for a decade, and are now starting to see the fruits of our labor… We’ve held fast to this idea for long enough to actually watch it grow and bloom. And it looks like it’s finally paying off… People would come and visit our school… they came from the state, they came from the city. We had quality reviews, folks coming in and really picking it apart… People from the Department of Education would come in concerned about our results and they would say, ‘We don’t think that what we see here matches your results.’ And each time I’ve had to argue, it will come. It will come and it’s going to take time.”

What has this school accomplished? Here is House’s estimate: “If you said: Plunk a school down in one of the poorest congressional districts in the United States, take anybody who walks in the door after all of the top performing students in the neighborhood have been siphoned off by specialized schools or selective schools, so you’re working with the most at-risk population in one of the most at-risk neighborhoods—and achieve close to an 80 percent graduation rate, that’s statistically not possible.  And yet we’re doing it.”