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Community Schools: Reform’s Lesser-Known Frontier

By Sarah M. Fine — February 01, 2010 5 min read
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When it comes to the battle of ideas that has dominated the school reform stage for the past decade, 2010 may be opening on a hopeful note. The Obama administration has taken up the task of settling the debate over whether America’s schools should be reformed by raising standards or by expanding community-based supports. The verdict? A resounding yes to both sides. No-excuses steps to ensure accountability are a necessary component of school reform, say the president and his advisers. But so too is an approach that takes into account the myriad non-academic needs of students, families, and communities.

The administration’s plan is not so much a compromise as a two-pronged strategy. The first prong, involving a continued focus on accountability, is already well under way. Efforts to create voluntary national “common core” standards—spearheaded not by the federal government but by a coalition of national groups—are moving forward. Experiments with merit-based pay for teachers have proliferated. And the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative promises to inspire yet more data-driven innovations.

But when it comes to linking schools with networks of social support, lawmakers have barely made it past the starting line. The administration requested $10 million to help organizations develop proposals for “Promise Neighborhoods,” place-based anti-poverty programs modeled on the Harlem Children’s Zone, but implementation will not begin until 2011.

Given the extraordinary ambition of the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, it seems reasonable, even wise, to spend time on planning. But the need to improve education outcomes in underserved communities is an urgent one. And it so happens that there is another, less resource-intensive way to create networks of social support for students. It involves what have become known as community schools, and it has been consistently overlooked by both lawmakers and the news media.

The principle behind community schools is a simple one: Take neighborhood schools and turn them into community hubs, by extending their hours and broadening their uses. Rather than locking up on weekends and after the dismissal bell each day, a school might keep its facilities open, for use by partner organizations offering tutoring, recreation, health care, child care, meals, or English-as-a-second-language classes. The arrangement is win-win: Service organizations gain facilities and opportunities to collaborate, and families gain a more centralized system of services. Since this process involves schools and organizations that already exist, the costs and the time associated with implementation remain relatively low.

What the creation of community schools does require, though, is a shift in thinking. Schools have to recognize that non-academic factors play a key role in determining academic outcomes, and service organizations have to reimagine themselves as actors in the education domain. Such shifts might not be easy to make—but good program coordinators and the promise of better outcomes can go a long way.

Britain has long been a leader when it comes to expanding the function and the vision of its schools. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the country began opening “extended schools”—facilities that have long hours and house programs ranging from health services to business-management classes. The project has produced remarkable results. “Student performance at every level is up, and some of the schools that were some of the worst performers have been turned round,” Mr. Blair said recently. By the beginning of this year, all British government-run schools were required to qualify as extended schools.

In the United States, however, this model has been much slower to catch on. During his tenure as the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan transformed 150 schools into community schools, and saw achievement levels and graduation rates jump—prompting him to later reflect that the project was “the best money I spent.” Other experiments with school-community partnerships have seen similar success. Nevertheless, community schools account for only about 5,000 of the nearly 100,000 public schools nationwide. Why?

The movement for community schools lacks two of the usual suspects in successful undertakings: money and momentum. Martin J. Blank, the director of the Coalition for Community Schools, estimates that a total of $100,000 is needed to facilitate and sustain a single school’s transformation into a community school. This sum is small potatoes when it comes to federal funding, but as of last fall, the government had financed only 10 community school programs, leaving 400 grant applicants in the cold.

As far as momentum goes—well, as usual, education reform has been kicked to the curb by an overburdened Congress. In early September, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, both Democrats, reintroduced legislation for the Full Service Community Schools Act. The bill, which was originally introduced in 2007, would authorize $200 million per year for five years to fund federal grants for partnerships between school districts and community-based organizations. Using Blank’s estimate, this funding could support the transformation of 2,000 schools.

The community-schools bill was referred to the House Education and Labor Committee, where it has sat, unexamined and undiscussed, for more than four months. It has made no headlines and garnered little support, even from those who care deeply about the health of America’s education system. If things continue in this vein, the bill may again fail to make it to the House floor—and thousands of families will never reap the benefits that might have come from the transformation of their local schools into robust community hubs.

Yet hope springs eternal that the bill, and the movement, might still take off. “Working together, we can make our nation’s schools the community hub for not only learning, but also vital services and support for families so that students come to school ready to learn,” declared Sen. Nelson at a press conference in the fall.

Let us hope that those of us who agree with him can make enough noise to ensure that the Full Service Community Schools Act and the beliefs it represents receive the attention they deserve.

A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as Community Schools: Reform’s Lesser-Known Frontier

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