Can Technology Help Community Schools Go To Scale?

By Benjamin Herold — January 30, 2016 6 min read
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Like (almost) everyone else in K-12 education, proponents of community schools want easier access to more and better data.

It’s not hard to understand why, given that the reform model is predicated on turning schools into neighborhood hubs in which multiple partners deliver a wide range of services and supports to students, families and community members.

“We want to be able to paint a more complete picture of students,” said Reuben Jacobson, the deputy director of the Coalition for Community Schools, a national alliance of organizations in the fields of education, youth and community development, health, family support, and more.

“Wouldn’t it be great if an afterschool coordinator knew something about students’ attendance, and teachers knew which of their students were getting tutoring or mental health services?” Jacobson said.

But the technology tools that would allow such information sharing to happen smoothly, securely, and at scale are still in their infancy. The coalition counts more than 100 community-schools sites in roughly three-dozen states. Jacobson said the more established among those have started to develop web tools, data-sharing infrastructures, and dashboards that allow for mapping community assets, targeting specific services to the students and families who need them most, reporting on program impact, and even doing some predictive analytics (around identifying potential dropouts, for example.)

More typical, however, is using lots of one-off, manually created files.

“At individual school sites disconnected from a larger [network], where they don’t have the resources to purchase or develop systems for tracking partnerships and services, you’re probably more likely see Excel spreadsheets,” Jacobson said.

Philadelphia’s community schools effort

That was pretty much the situation facing veteran Pennsylvania principal Otis Hackney—recently appointed as the City of Philadelphia’s chief education officer—for the past several years at South Philadelphia High. Hackney is the keynote speaker at this weekend’s EduCon conference here, where he is expected to talk about his new charge: leading recently elected Mayor Jim Kenney’s effort to create 25 community schools.

Back in 2010, when Hackney took the helm at Southern, as the school is informally known, the school community was still reeling from a wave of racially based attacks on Asian students—and an indifferent response from the Philadelphia school district administrators—that had prompted intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice. Three years later, Hackney had to manage the influx of hundreds of new students to Southern after nearby Bok High was closed as part of the Philadelphia district’s massive downsizing.

And, oh yeah, during that time, the district was also in the midst of having its operating budget eviscerated, dealing with ongoing labor strife, and struggling to stem a massive exodus of students to charter schools.

Hackney’s response at Southern was to bring in lots of community partners, try to align the services they offered with his goals for the school, and create incentives for them to stay involved—all without having to take any money out of Southern’s bare-bones budget.

“My push was making [those partnerships] mutually beneficial, where they could go back to their funders and show the value they brought,” Hackney said during an interview earlier this week.

That’s where the data sharing came in.

At Southern, it happened via a Google Doc that one of the school’s community partners developed. The collaboratively produced spreadsheet allowed school leaders and approved partners to see the full range of services an individual student was receiving, or all the students taking part in a particular program. It also allowed Hackney and various partners to begin tracking things like whether participation in an after-school game club was leading to improving school attendance.

Hackney and Mayor Kenney have only been in their new roles for a few weeks. Big, important questions about what community schools will look like in Philadelphia— How will they be staffed? What services will be provided? Who is paying?—have yet to be answered. It also remains to be seen how a new, city-initiated focus on creating community schools might complement the Philadelphia district’s existing efforts to turn around low-performing schools and create and replicate “innovative” school models (such as that of Science Leadership Academy, the host of the EduCon conference).

Among all those other challenges, Hackney said, will be “building an infrastructure so others can do the same thing” that he did at Southern.

Tech tools for community schools coming online

There are a growing number of models around the country for managing the complex legal, technical, and logistical hurdles associated with the data-sharing part of the work. Last year, for example, I wrote about the rise of integrated data systems, in which schools and public agencies link records covering everything from children’s mental-health status to their school performance and their involvement in the juvenile-justice system.

And Jacobson of the Coalition for Community Schools ticked off a list of new technology tools that sites around the country are experimenting with:

  • The Cincinnati Learning Partner Dashboard gives partners the ability to see student-level data about the children they serve and upload information about the programs students are involved in. It was developed via a partnership between the Cincinnati schools, a nonprofit partner called Strive, and Microsoft.
  • The Fort Wayne, Ind. community schools are among those using Balanced Scorecard, another dashboard-slash-performance management system.
  • The Oakland, Calif. Unified district and the New Haven, Conn. public schools are among those using web-based GIS (geographic information systems) to map community assets for youth as part of community-schools-related initiatives.
  • The New York City Department of Education and New Visions for Public Schools have partnered around the creation of the New Visions Student Sorter, a kind of one-stop shop for multiple streams of student data that is built in Google Sheets and can be used to create profiles of students, analyze gaps in credit attainment, track parent conferences, and more.
  • Community schools in Evansville, Ind., use an app called Peachjar to manage parent and community outreach.
  • The Communities Program at Oshkosh North High School in Wisconsin brings technology into the learning experience, providing students with community-based learning projects alongside partners from various organizations. Students also create and maintain a website.

While community schools often focus on extended learning time for students, there has not yet been much of a push to incorporate blended or online learning strategies, Jacobson said.

Nor has there been any coordinated focus on integrating community schools with the kind of hands-on, inquiry-based, technology-infused instructional models so popular here at EduCon.

But leaders in the field recognize that there is plenty of room to grow, he said.

“As places are getting more sophisticated and working at a more systemic level, they’re starting to take time to think, ‘Couldn’t we do this better with more technology?’” Jacobson said.

“I would say that technology is a real area of opportunity for community schools.”

The last name of Reuben Jacobson was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

Photo: Former South Philadelphia High principal and current City of Philadelphia Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney speaks before the Philadelphia School Reform Commission in 2010. - Harvey Finkle for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.