UCLA Report Urges Caution on Community-School Approach

By Holly Kurtz — April 11, 2014 2 min read
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Wraparound services for schools are all the rage, with newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to open 100 schools that offer them and a well-publicized Child Trends report finding promise in programs run by nonprofit organizations that partner with schools and community services such as health clinics.

However, in a report released last month, University of California Los Angeles researchers urged policymakers to practice caution as they consider adopting or expanding nonprofit-run models like Communities in Schools, and City Connects. Such programs, which Child Trends calls “integrated student supports” serve about 3 percent of U.S. public school students and schools.

Researchers at the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools believe these services should be coordinated by school systems, as they are in most districts and schools.

“While integrating student supports is a well-intentioned endeavor, the examples most frequently cited are a side show and have little chance of enhancing equity of opportunity for students across the country,” states the report by the center, which is directed by Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor.

In a statement responding to the UCLA report, Child Trends President Carol Emig noted that the nonprofit-run programs studied served 1.5 million students in 3,000 schools and that they were experiencing “significant growth.” The Child Trends findings, she said, suggested that such programs align “with decades of research on child and youth development, and that there is emerging evidence of improvements on several academic measures and initial evidence of a positive return on investment.”

However, the UCLA report notes that such programs can also have unintended consequences.

“While most of the discussion of integrated student supports is well-intentioned, the examples most frequently cited have little chance of enhancing equity of opportunity for students across the country,” the report stated.

For example, because community-based programs such as health clinics have limited resources, their decision to open offices in one school that uses a specific wraparound service model may lead to sacrifices elsewhere. This can increase inequities. Another problem, the UCLA researchers said, is that policymakers may lay off counselors or otherwise reduce school resources because they mistakenly believe that “community resources are ready and able to meet all the support needs of students and their families.”

The UCLA researchers suggest that wraparound services should be core features of school improvement plans rather than add-on programs that serve a limited number of students and schools. They advocate “weaving together the full range of existing school-home-community resources to develop a unified and comprehensive system of student and learning supports at schools.” Their website lists examples of states (such as Alabama) and districts (such as Gainesville (GA) City Schools) that are taking this kind of approach.

Child Trends President Emig did not come down on the side of either type of program—those operated by nonprofits or those run by schools. Instead, she stated that studies of school system-run programs had simply been beyond the scope of the Child Trends study.

"(W)e think an independent study similar in depth and rigor to the ISS study would be a valuable contribution to the field, " she wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.