School & District Management

‘Community Schools’ Earn Plaudits, But Face Perils

By Linda Jacobson — May 14, 2003 9 min read
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On almost any morning at Elliott Elementary School in downtown Lincoln, Neb., pupils might be eating breakfast or singing in the chorus that meets before the bell rings. After school, they disperse around campus for Girl Scouts, math club, or soccer.

The report, “Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools,” is available from the Coalition for Community Schools.

In the evening, their parents might be using the school’s community learning center to acquire computer skills, or get help with their tax returns, or take a fitness class.

“It’s like a web, in which you continue to see the possibilities or opportunities,” said De Ann Currin, the principal of the 425-student school, who has watched a transformation take place at Elliott Elementary since the local YMCA began operating the learning center about 10 years ago. “This match is what I think we need. We all need to take care of all children.”

But Elliott and other “community schools"—a catchall name for schools that operate before and after the academic day and host a variety of activities for their towns and neighborhoods—might soon be seeing a reduction in a key source of funding.

Many such schools get money under the federal 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which President Bush wants Congress to cut by 40 percent. While not all schools that receive the money are “community schools,” the program is a significant source of funding for such initiatives.

Administration officials say a study released earlier this year by Mathematica Policy Research, of Princeton, N.J., shows few differences in the academic performance of students who take part in after-school programs financed under the federal initiative and those who don’t participate. (“Study Critiques Federal After-School Program,” Feb. 12, 2003.)

But advocates for community schools, who present their argument in a report being released this week, say that the experiences of such schools show that the approach creates the conditions needed for students to succeed academically.

“Research confirms what experience has long suggested: Community schools work,” says the report, published by the Coalition for Community Schools, a Washington-based alliance of more than 160 organizations working to advance the movement. “By sharing expertise and resources, schools and communities act in concert to educate children; schools are not left to work alone.”

A collection of evaluations of 20 community school initiatives throughout the country, the study finds that in 15 of them, students’ grades and test scores improved as measured against comparison groups, in some cases, or the schools’ prior performance. Other improvements were also found, including increased attendance, reduced discipline problems, and better access to physical and mental health services, according to “Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools.”

Proposed Cuts Debated

Other organizations are also coming out against the proposed spending cuts in the $1 billion Community Learning Centers program, which Martin J. Blank, the staff director for the coalition and one of the authors of the report, said has helped “catapult” the growth of community schools.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals purchased an “advertorial” on the subject in last week’s issue of Education Week, expressing concern “that the demands of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act [of 2001] and depleted state budgets are putting community schools in great danger, especially their extended day programs that depend heavily” on the federal learning-centers program.

They argued that now was not the time to “shortchange the programs that help fund these very important community schools.”

But Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said last week that because the federal program has not had the results the Bush administration would like to see, the president plans to reduce the amount from $1 billion to $600 million and give states more authority over how the money is spent.

“States will have more power to put the money where they need it the most,” Mr. Bradshaw said. “They’ll get more say in how it works.”

Supporters of after-school and community school programs say the supplemental activities offered contribute to learning and make school more relevant to students.

Diverting Attention?

Some experts, however, have questioned whether scarce public school resources should be used on a smorgasbord of activities with uncertain relevance to schools’ core mission: learning.

“One of the things I always worried about is that [community schools] divert the attention of school people from educating kids,” said Lisbeth B. Schorr, an author and the director of the Project on Effective Intervention, based at Harvard University.

She added that educators can get so caught up in children’s needs that they begin to make excuses for why they are not achieving. She noted, though, that the coalition’s report places a new emphasis on the importance of learning.

Criticism of after-school and community school programs has also come from some conservative groups, which say that it is simply not government’s job to offer such services, and that enough such programs exist in the private sector.

An educator involved in the movement, Dianne Iverson, the director of Schools Uniting Neighborhoods—also known as the SUN Initiative— in Portland, Ore., said she believes that “the most important ingredient in academic achievement is an outstanding administrator who attracts outstanding teachers,” but that community schools play a supportive role.

Mr. Blank of the Coalition for Community Schools added that, in recent years, community schools have become more “intentional” about improving learning.

“In order for this [movement] to stick,” he said, “it has got to demonstrate its relevance to the core mission of the school.”

Because parents and community partners work together to deliver programs for both children and adults, community schools work more effectively than schools that don’t use that approach, the coalition’s report says. It also notes that at many such schools, directors are hired to relieve the principals of much of the load of organizing activities.

Principals of community schools say that the classes and activities they provide help teachers achieve their goals in the classroom.

For example, at Elliott Elementary, the high-poverty school in Lincoln, teachers were able to gain up to 45 minutes of instructional time each day after receiving training, and the staff at the YMCA has also benefited from that professional development. Reading and mathematics scores have increased in 2nd and 4th grade for the past two years, and the school’s mobility rate for students—a factor that often impedes learning—has declined.

Early-childhood education has been the emphasis at Howe Elementary School in Green Bay, Wis., where community school programs are offered next door at a resource center—a former grocery store, which the school obtained financing to buy and convert into a learning facility. Programs offered include Head Start and Even Start, a family-literacy program.

And parents of students attending the school can take younger children to the resource center for play groups that provide “preliteracy” activities through songs and counting games.

“I never want to lose sight of the fact that in order for children’s literacy skills to improve, we have to have connections with the family,” said Edward Dorff, the principal of the 500-pupil school.

Those connections, he added, have extended to other members of the community as well. Senior citizens use the resource center to play bingo, and a local hospital offers medical services there.

Leaders of the SUN Initiative, a partnership involving the city of Portland and Multnomah County in Oregon, did not expect to see test scores increase right away, but they were pleasantly surprised. In the elementary schools that are involved in the program, both reading and math scores have been rising since 1998, when the project began.

The schools have also seen an increase in parent involvement.

“Parents didn’t feel welcome before,” Ms. Iverson said. “Now on a Friday night, you can have a family event at a school and 500 people will come, of all diverse backgrounds.”

Twenty schools in five districts around Portland are currently involved in the initiative. The next step, Ms. Iverson said, is to work with additional schools that are interested in joining.

Community schools, the coalition’s report says, have three distinct advantages over traditional schools: They pull in resources from outside the school to help students and their families; they develop both academic and nonacademic skills in students; and they offer young people opportunities to “build social capital” through such activities as service learning, school-to-work programs, and mentoring relationships with adults.

Such advantages put schools in a position to meet the “five conditions for learning” that are necessary for children to succeed, the report says, including a core instructional program with qualified teachers, students who are motivated and engaged in learning, students who have their basic physical, mental and emotional health needs met, a mutual respect among parents, families, and school staff members, and a safe and supportive school climate that is connected to the broader community.

Not Just Sharing Space

While schools are often the sites where this communitywide approach to learning takes place, they are just one player in a movement that often brings together city and county agencies, nonprofit organizations, business leaders, universities, and private foundations.

“The notion of community leadership is another key aspect that we are beginning to see more of,” Mr. Blank said. He added that the current wave of community school initiatives is being “driven as much by external partners as it is by schools’ reaching out.”

Such has been the case in Providence, R.I., where Mayor David N. Cicilline made the development of community schools a part of his 2002 election campaign.

“The mayor honestly believes that the schools belong to the community,” said Elaine Fersh, a consultant to the mayor who wrote “Stepping Up,” a report commissioned by the 27,000-student Providence school district to look at what the city would need to do to implement a community school initiative.

“It’s about sharing the building,” she said, “but it’s also about collaborating with each other, about appreciating what each other does.”

While the primary goal of such efforts should be student success, Mr. Blank added, community school partnerships “should mutually benefit all the participating institutions.”

At Howe Elementary in Green Bay, Mr. Dorff said his school’s resource center is becoming a location in the community that not only serves the needs of students, but also provides neighborhood residents and organizations with a gathering place.

“When I get out in the community and talk to people, they tell me about how they’ve participated in things here,” Mr. Dorff said. “We’ve got this beautiful facility, and if it can be used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, then that’s great.”

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