Research Review Gives Thumbs Up to Community Schools Approach

By Holly Kurtz — February 25, 2014 3 min read
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In the wake of newly elected New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s pledge to open 100 community schools, a report released Tuesday finds promise in this type of educational intervention. The study, supported in part with a grant from an organization founded by de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, concludes that research and theory support the concept of community schools that seek to boost academic performance by offering mentoring, counseling, healthcare, and other wraparound services that extend well beyond the classroom.

”..[S]chool success (or failure) is the product of multiple and varied factors at the individual, family, and school levels,” write the authors of a white paper based on the report. “This suggests that providing an array of academic and nonacademic supports in a coordinated fashion....is a more effective strategy than focusing on one, or a small set of, supports.”

The report contains both a review of past research and an original analysis suggesting that myriad school, home, and student-related factors influence academic achievement. It was produced by Child Trends, a Bethesda, Md.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization and supported by a $250,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and AT&T. This is interesting given de Blasio’s stated intentions to undo centerpieces of Bloomberg-era education reforms such as A through F school accountability grades and free rent for charters that use district buildings. However, Bloomberg did support the Harlem Children’s Zone, a school reform model that incorporated many wraparound services.

The review also found that that wraparound interventions were cost-effective, with returns on investments ranging from $4 to $15 saved for every $1 spent. The report estimates that such interventions, which generally target lower-income neighborhoods, currently exist in 3,000 schools serving 1.5 million students.

Although wraparounds (or “integrated student supports”) show promise, report authors found only a small handful of rigorous experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations that examined how individual models impact academic performance. The specific models examined were Communities in Schools, Beacon and City Connects. Results of seven quasi-experimental evaluations were generally positive in that they indicated that wraparounds helped increase attendance, GPA, and reading and math achievement. Wraparounds were also associated with reductions in dropout rates and grade retention.

Results of four randomized, controlled trials were more of a mixed bag:

“For math achievement, one out of four evaluations had at least one significant impact. Impacts on other outcomes were also found to be sparse, with significant impacts found for zero out of two evaluations of student progress, one out of four evaluations of school attendance, zero of three evaluations of reading achievement, and zero out of four evaluations of overall grade point average.”

Kristin Anderson Moore, suggested that some results might appear deceptively small because the evaluations compared students who received a milder form of the treatment (basic wraparound services) with their more at-risk peers who got a stronger dose (intensive wraparound services.) Results might have been more dramatic if the intensive group had been compared with students who received no services whatsoever.

“In sum, while the evidence base is still emerging, the fact that this approach is solidly based in the literature on child
and youth development, practitioner experience, and studies of education represents a critical asset,” the report’s authors conclude.

If de Blasio does move forward with creating community schools like those examined by the report, he should probably avoid doing it halfway or on the cheap. The report found that implementation matters. A lot. In fact, one study found that poor or partial implementation was no better than no program at all.

Making the Grade: Assessing the Evidence for Integrated Student Supports was produced by Child Trends and peer reviewed by Megan Andrew of Notre Dame, Patricia Gándara of the University of California Los Angeles and Jonathan Zaff of Tufts University.

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