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Mixed Bag Found at N.Y.C. Schools Striving To Link Services

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Although an ambitious effort to convert eight New York City elementary schools into "community schools'' providing on-site coordination of educational, social, and health services has achieved some notable successes, the project has fallen short in many of its goals, a study concludes.

The Bruner Foundation, which specializes in evaluation, conducted the three-year evaluation of schools participating in the New York State Community Schools Program.

The state program includes goals in five areas: curriculum and instruction, staffing, collaboration and support services, school facilities, and service.

While many other efforts to link outside social services and schools are based on the belief that students' academic achievement will improve if they are healthy and well cared for, the New York program is notable for its explicit inclusion of academics, said Janet Carter, the executive director of the Bruner Foundation.

Some of the schools studied received state grants to begin the community-schools focus in 1987, while others joined the program in 1988. Participating schools received more than $100,000 per year, as well as technical help from the Edwin Gould Foundation.

The state program defined a community school as one that is open throughout the year from early morning to late at night, six days a week, and provides "best practice'' in teaching and learning and other services needed by students to achieve at high levels.

'Brokering' Not Effective

In general, the study concludes, health, nutritional, and social services were available for community-school children and their families--but at levels no greater "than knowledgeable observers believe are common in other New York City schools.''

The "brokering'' function that the schools were supposed to serve by linking children and families with service providers also was not effective, it suggests.

While attendance improved at the schools, and some students spent more time on academic activities, the study found no evidence of improved academic outcomes. And it judged the program as failing to meet its goal of providing a developmentally appropriate, challenging, and enriched curriculum.

Still, all of the schools did launch pre-kindergarten programs, which the study says would not have been the case without the program.

"Conceptually, there is no question this is not only a terrific idea, but in some ways an inevitable idea,'' Ms. Carter said of the community-schools concept. "What the report shows, however, is that to achieve that goal you need continuity, enough money, and enough political clout coming from the top to allow things to happen at the school level.''

Few Systematic Changes

The study describes considerable variation among the eight schools. At three schools that worked closely with a local college, for example, teachers worked to develop an integrated curriculum. At other schools, the study says, there was a "scattering of thematic and integrated curriculum efforts.''

In general, however, there was "no evidence of a systematic effect attributable to the community-schools program.''

Although the community schools were open more than previously, none was open the entire summer, and many were not open for significantly longer periods of time during the school year.

The afternoon programs typically offered tutoring and homework assistance, although some schools offered arts instruction. There was little evidence, however, that any of the programs offered after school, on weekends, or during the summer were coordinated with the schools' regular instructional program.

The program also suffered because of staff turnover. The community-school coordinators in every school changed between 1989 and 1992, the study notes. And principals did not receive "systematic support'' from the state department.

One significant success of the program, the study indicates, was the recreational programs for students offered at the schools.

Most of the schools attempted to provide on-site health services, the study says, and some succeeded for a time.

"The community schools have taken this point very seriously and many have made extensive efforts,'' the study says, while adding that the changes were difficult to sustain.

The schools had less success in becoming sites for the coordination of social services.

Social-service agencies "have their own priorities'' the report observes, and school coordinators were "unable to exert sufficient leverage, in a general and sustained fashion, to change those priorities.''

The study urges that health and social-service agencies--and not schools--take responsibility for bringing services to schools.

Copies of the study are available at no charge from the Bruner Foundation, 560 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012; (212) 334-9844.

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