Oregon Community Schools Model Shows Staying Power
As interest in that school model grows, the SUN Community Schools show how it's done
For Lynch View Elementary, a K-5 school in suburban Portland, the school day doesn't end when the bell rings at 2:22 p.m.
As one of 64 "community schools" in Multnomah County, the school also provides homework assistance, academic enrichment, free breakfast and dinner for students, a weekly food pantry, a host site for local medical organizations to provide health screenings and dental care to low-income residents, and a place where needy families can connect with social services such as rental or utility assistance—all with help from a range of nonprofit and county agencies.
Partnerships between schools and community organizations have existed for years. But the "community school" model, as a strategy to scale up throughout a school district, is getting renewed attention from policymakers, including President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. And some of those schools are just coming into being with the help of federal seed money.
In Multnomah County, which includes the city of Portland, the SUN Community Schools program—which stands for Schools Uniting Neighborhoods—has survived changes in city and county leadership, shifts in school superintendents, potential budget cuts, and downturns in the economy, yet still managed to grow.
SUN is an example of not just how such programs can be launched but also how they can be sustained over the long haul, said Martin J. Blank, the director of the Washington-based Coalition for Community Schools. He estimates that 500 to 1,000 more community schools have formed in the past five or so years to join the 4,000 or so that the coalition already knew about. They are difficult to track because the models can be so different among schools and districts, he said.
One common element, though, is that community schools with staying power have to promote a shared sense of responsibility among many different organizations, he said
"It is getting people to see there is greater power in synergy among the parts," Mr. Blank said. In Multnomah County, nonprofit organizations, school districts, the city of Portland, and the county "are all financing work that relates to the well-being of children and their families," he said.
Support at the Top
Some of the new attention to community schooling stems from the Obama administration's Promise Neighborhoods initiative, similar to the Harlem Children's Zone, where social-service agencies, schools, and health organizations have banded together to support children and families in a 97-block area of New York City. The president's fiscal 2013 budget proposal would devote $100 million to expand Promise Neighborhoods. Mr. Duncan, the former chief executive officer of the Chicago school district, where the community schools movement has also flourished, has been a powerful supporter of the concept.
The national economic downturn and studies pointing to growing academic gaps between schools' "have" and "have not" students have also helped to generate some of the urgency around the concept.
"The reality of the situation is, we have families in crisis," said Lynn Blevens, the principal of Lynch View Elementary, where 80 percent of the 454 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and some students are classified as homeless. The school is part of the 6,700-student Centennial district. "If we are better able to help support those families," Ms. Blevens added, "we're better able to serve the children."
In 2010-11, Lynch View made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act after failing to do so for the previous two school years. "We made AYP while we were looking out for the whole child and the whole family," Ms. Blevens said.
The community schools movement launched in Portland schools in the 1999-2000 school year, after a planning process to bring together local partners and the 47,000-student district. Over time, it expanded to surrounding jurisdictions, and now almost half the schools are outside the Portland district.
The concept was well-established in several other communities at the time that the Portland program was getting off the ground. In New York, for example, the nonprofit Children's Aid Society started operating community schools in 1992 and now partners with 21 schools, bringing in a variety of social supports such as medical and mental-health services for children and their families, academic enrichment and summer programs, and adult education.
The Chicago system has the largest community school program in the country. More than 400 partnerships with nonprofit organizations provide services to children and their families at 150 city schools.
Multnomah County's community schools, though smaller in number than some others across the country, have grown to serve more than 19,000 children and youths in 2010-11. Eighty percent were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, 70 percent were racial minorities, and 21 percent were English-language learners, according to statistics maintained by the SUN network. Thirty-six of the SUN Community Schools are in the Portland district, and the remainder are in five smaller districts on the eastern end of the county.
In Multnomah County, the SUN Community Schools program was seen as an anti-poverty initiative and a strategy for providing services, as opposed to simply a set of after-school or enrichment programs, said Diana C. Hall, a program supervisor from the county's human-services department.
That partnership has been a strength, as no one entity has had to shoulder the entire burden of making the program run. In 2011-12, the SUN Community Schools received contributions of about $51.7 million: $34.3 million came from the county, the city of Portland, local and federal grants, and the participating school districts; $10 million from matching dollars that supplemented the base funding; and $7 million in in-kind donations.
Another element that principals at SUN Community Schools say is essential to sustaining the program is full-time site coordinators. Each school has a coordinator that serves as a liaison between the school and the community organizations that partner with each school. Principals say that without that staff member, the programs would not be able to run.
Role of Coordinators
Those coordinators also help sharpen the focus of the program at a school. For example, at Faubion School, a preK-8 school in the Portland district, the SUN programs were doing well, but school staff members didn't seem to be taking full advantage of the resources, leaders there say. The school has about 400 students; 77 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
About a year and a half ago, Principal LaShawn A. Lee and site coordinator Ashley Coltin sat down to figure out how the SUN resources could get more traction in the school. Ms. Lee held a staff meeting, and Ms. Coltin talked about SUN. Ms. Coltin said the time was invaluable to allow her to get greater buy-in from staff members.
"The teachers were saying, 'We have such a great SUN program,' " Ms. Coltin said. "And we do. But I was saying, 'Pause the enthusiasm; we have so much more we can do.' "
Teachers now are much more proactive about directing children to SUN partners if they know about personal struggles or family problems, Ms. Lee said. Where parent-teacher-association meetings were once so sparsely attended they could be held in an office, they now have to be held in the gymnasium to accommodate all the interested parents.
The partnerships are even more important as principals are asked to do more with fewer resources, Ms. Lee said. The program served 315 Faubion students last school year, providing a variety of services such as mentoring programs, African drumming, theater groups, fitness classes for the community and free breakfast for students. Teachers reported that the students in SUN programs attended school more often, were more likely to participate in class, and turned in their homework more often.
Fending Off Cutbacks
The close ties have an added benefit of ensuring that the community schools are popular across a wide group of stakeholders. That popularity was tested in 2006, when the Multnomah County board of commissioners proposed slashing $1.7 million, about half its contribution that year to the SUN network. Hundreds of parents spoke in protest, and the local newspaper decried the damage that might be done to the "ambitious collaboration."
The money was spared, and the protests led to the creation of a SUN Service System Coordinating Council, made up of 17 representatives from county and city organizations, school districts, and the nonprofit organizations that partner with schools. The crisis led to a new level of collaboration, Ms. Hall said.
The coordinating council in Multnomah County is another example of how to sustain community schools, said Mr. Blank, the executive director of the community schools coalition. To keep such programs thriving, there has to be a clear vision—and someone whose job it is to carry that vision forward, he said.
"We don't say you have to have X and Y," Mr. Blank said. "We say what's most important is that the intermediaries have legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of the community." In some community schools, that role is served by the United Way or another nonprofit, he said. In others, such as Multnomah County, county staff members have that role.
"It doesn't just happen in a focused and systemic way," he said, "unless it's somebody's job."
Vol. 31, Issue 24, Pages 1, 16-17Published in Print: March 14, 2012, as Ore. Community Schools Show Staying Power