Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Community Schools: A Model for the Middle Grades

By Josefina Alvarado-Mena, Chris Brown, Nicole Johnson & Frank Mirabal — June 21, 2013 5 min read

Expanding the number of community schools is no longer a goal that can be left on the periphery of school reform. No academic standards, tests, or school-based interventions will ever be able to completely mitigate the economic, family, medical, and emotional needs that interfere with a student’s learning.

In January, a Harvard Family Research Project report on community schools cited research crediting them with improved student learning, attendance, behavior, and development, as well as increased family engagement in their children’s learning.

The Atlantic Philanthropies set out to replicate such success when it launched Elev8, a community-schools model for the middle grades in low-income communities, in 2007. The vision was to bring all the factors that we know can support student learning into one building and under the coordination of one program. (Editor’s note: The Atlantic Philanthropies also help support Education Week’s coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement.)

One of our biggest surprises was seeing a lack of adequate emotional and behavioral support for adolescents."

It was the perfect match. Community schools give students who live in poverty advantages enjoyed by their wealthier and higher-performing peers. The federal Equity and Excellence Commission lists such advantages as health care (mental, dental, and vision services), expanded learning experiences, and family supports to help motivate students and prepare them to learn.

And where better to deliver those supports than the middle grades? Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz finds that the middle school years are critical: If a 6th grader attends school less than 80 percent of the time, fails math or English, or receives a poor behavior grade in a core course, there is a 75 percent chance he or she will drop out, if nothing is done to intervene.

With sites in New Mexico, Baltimore, Chicago, and Oakland, Calif., Elev8’s middle grades-community schools model is built on four pillars:

• Expanded learning during the school year and summers;
• School-based health centers to address students’ physical and emotional needs;
• Family and community support to create healthy and stable neighborhoods; and
• Family and community engagement.

As the directors for each of these sites, we want to share examples of what community schools can do and provide insights we picked up in the hope that you will join us on this critical journey.

First, we learned that school systems that serve students from low-income families need the capacity that can come only from the communities around them. We worked to create better services at lower costs by linking public, private, and nonprofit resources and activities around common goals. Today, New Mexico is much better at pooling resources to support health and education. In Baltimore, a pilot program to provide intensive workforce-development supports to parents, in partnership with a local human-services organization, is seeing success: Nearly 70 percent of the parents engaged are now gainfully employed.

Similarly, county and school officials collaborate with nonprofit organizations in Oakland to coordinate resources focused on after-school programming and mental-health services. Moreover, the Oakland Unified School District, in partnership with other public and private agencies, is leading an effort to scale up community schools districtwide.

As outsiders, we often lament that public institutions don’t unilaterally expand opportunity, leverage funding sources, or build bridges between agencies. But we have seen that when we work respectfully in our community schools, public systems are willing to hear new ideas, engage in the conversation, and even change.

Providing school-based health centers was particularly challenging, but critical to the outcomes we sought. Healthier students are better learners. School health centers can lead to higher attendance rates and better physical- and mental-health care. Elev8 school-based health centers saw more than 22,000 visits during the 2011-12 school year alone. One Elev8 Chicago school saw a 100 percent vaccination rate translate into higher attendance.

Still, one of our biggest surprises was seeing a lack of adequate emotional and behavioral support for adolescents. Schools often set behavior expectations based on the fact that middle-grades students are no longer children, but fail to fully account for vast differences in maturity and the traumas in students’ lives. Managing relationships better and providing more behavioral support is critical for this age group, and Elev8’s community-schools model helps schools help meet these demands.

Equally important is promoting parent engagement by bridging gaps in trust and understanding between educators and parents. There is no one way to do this, but accommodating parents where they are is a good start. For example, provide translations when necessary. Host events when parents are available—even on Saturday mornings. Create parent-led family-resource centers or food pantries. Invite parents with trade skills to help make fixes at schools. Create opportunities and awards to acknowledge the good things students do in school.

We know these steps improve school-parent relationships because we’ve seen them work. Most important, this approach works for parents with low educational attainment who are looking for ways to help their children succeed in school.

It is time to be honest and recognize how unrealistic it is to ask our schools to lead instruction and deliver better outcomes when students face so many unmet needs that are at the heart of their readiness to learn. Addressing those needs must be part of the thinking needed in school reform talks.

When a community taps its resources, facilities, talent, and energy to support schools so that educators can do what they do best—organize and deliver instruction—we create a world rich with new potential. That is the vision of community schools that drove the Atlantic Philanthropies to marry community schools and the middle grades.

This combination, we believe, is the most promising strategy for helping all young people—especially those in low-income communities—graduate from high school prepared for college and careers in a world that demands increasingly high-level thinking and skills.

A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Tapping Potential: Community Schools and the Middle Grades

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